Democracy is always fragile. It requires assiduous and perpetual cultivation. It does not flourish in all cultural soils. It can wither under the slightest demographic change. It invites all kinds of popular abuses, as people start to vote themselves other people’s money. It generally collapses in a “culture war.”
The crucial sociological aspect of almost every contemporary “culture war,” to my view, is the growth of large cities, and with that, the growing difference in outlook between big city dwellers and the rest of the population. Something corresponding to the left/right divide forms as the people who live in vast conurbations become increasingly distanced from hard immutable facts of human life and nature, that remain fairly obvious to those with eyes unglared by city lights. Not that town and country folk aren’t blind in their own ways, and greedy and featherbedding when they get a chance. And did I mention boorish? But they do know at which end of the sky the sun rises.
The “Nanny State” is largely founded in the exigencies of big city life: the need for traffic and crowd control, and the micromanagement of public attitudes through bylaws and signage. The intense conformity and style-consciousness of city people is itself a function of close-quarter, mutual adaptation, together with the illusion of smartness when moving like a school of fish. Where elections in non-urban areas tend to be two- and three-horse races, those in the middle of large cities tend toward one-party affairs.
The same thing happens in the East, faster through the absence of constitutional inertia. Bangkok and Thailand offer an especially vivid example: one country has become two worlds. We have watched the emergence of a conflict between Yellow Shirts (essentially urban) and Red Shirts (essentially not), which may be progressing toward civil war.
As a former Bangkok resident trying to follow events over the city map, I am impressed by the tactical sophistication of the Red Shirt invaders. Their encampment began in the older part of the city, where it threatened access to government buildings. This was also territory the police and army were best prepared to defend, through habit—embracing the traditional, symbolic flashpoints for urban political theatre.
But the encampment was then moved toward the heart of the international business district; and physically stretched, along major shopping boulevards from Rajprasong, through key intersections, connecting to useful staging areas like Lumpini Park.
Bangkok transit services were thus cut, from the middle. A trip from almost any A, to any B, must go around the encampment. When the government cuts off Internet and phone service into Red Shirt territory, it also cuts off major businesses. Tourists find themselves beseiged in their hotels, guaranteeing prominent world media coverage.
One tips one’s hat to craftsmanship: maximum disruption from minimum force.
This is backed with some marketing savvy, as the Red Shirt slogans have shifted from supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, the freely-elected demagogue who was “Toxin” to Bangkok voters. He was deposed and exiled after urban Yellow Shirt demonstrations. They also deposed his party after it won the election, and then a compliant Supreme Court banned Thaksin’s party, lest it embarrass Bangkok by winning yet again.
Now the Red Shirts demand “democracy” in the abstract. There have been shows of loyalty to the king, to defeat the charge of “republicanism.” And, for the most part, the crowds from upcountry have remained edifyingly peaceful. But stubborn; more stubborn than Bangkok can understand.
And here we come to the challenge of following events, not only through the established media (whose “urbanity” is on display in every sentence), but by reading between their lines. Bangkok’s media depict the Red Shirts contemptuously as hicks, “water buffaloes.” It is insinuated they not only had transport provided to Bangkok, but are paid by the day.
This does not explain the dedication and stamina. You cannot rent a crowd that will remain disciplined under armed threat, and take casualties, in humid tropical heat through what is now nearly two months. The women—many with children—have been as determined as the men in refusing to disperse in the presence of gunfire.
I don’t doubt the organizers are, as the yellow-shirted allege, corrupt, self-serving, and ruthless. (I remember a couple of them individually from when I was younger.) But they would get nowhere without real support. It is a battle of wills with the imposed “technocrat” government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which sincerely thinks Thailand will disintegrate if it relents; and may well be right. Yet which knows it would lose a free election, if voting were again allowed outside Bangkok.
But does it follow that Abhisit’s supporters could win a civil war? Especially as they utterly depend on an army with succession issues at the top, and a long history of fickleness in the prospect of a bloodbath.