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Thailand: From Fat Cats to Red Shirts

How Wall Street's crash stoked Thai class rage.

Red shirt protester
A "red shirt" protester carries his fan after arriving on the train from Bangkok at the Chiang Mai train station, 430 miles north of Bangkok, May 21, 2010. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — The blood and scorch marks have been scrubbed from the Thai capital’s avenues. The 88 killed in chaotic anti-government protests have received their last rites. A chapter Bangkok’s governor deems the worst in his city’s history has ended.

Thailand’s leadership is now struggling — and failing — to find common ground with a mobilized, largely working-class faction that detests them.

But both sides may have overlooked a common antagonist: Wall Street.

The U.S.-born global economic crisis has played an overlooked role in prodding disaffected Thais to join anti-government demonstrations, said Peter Warr, an economist and poverty researcher with Australian National University.

Thailand’s economy, roughly 70 percent reliant on exported goods, has been battered in recent years by dwindling foreign demand. The export sector’s rank-and-file — assemblymen, garment stitchers, auto workers — have seen waves of layoffs and slashed hours.

“Who are the people who work in Thailand’s export-oriented industries and have been laid off? The unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast,” Warr said. “The very people who are the support base for the ‘Red Shirts.’”

The “Red Shirts” are the members of the Thai protest movement that seized parts of Bangkok from March until May, when the military crushed their encampment with armored vehicles and battalions firing live rounds. Before the crackdown, the group’s leadership urged Thais to join a “fight to the death” against governing “aristocrats” who’ve long shafted “the commoners.”

This message was particularly attractive to those wounded by the economy and seeking a vehicle for their frustration, Warr said.

“They’ve experienced that, during this government, they’ve lost out. And they’re right,” he said. “They don’t know why. But it’s easy to portray their deteriorating circumstances as being caused by the government.”

Economic woes only partially explain the Red Shirts movement, which at its peak summoned more than 100,000 largely working-class Thais to Bangkok rallies. Only about 5,000 were still gathering into the final bloody week. The group demanded fresh elections, insisting a powerful coterie of military and political leaders rigged the courts to disband the Red Shirts’ favored political parties.

Many among the Red Shirts faithful claim grievances that run deeper than electoral or economic cycles. They insist they’re shut out of a hierarchy of strings and connections that keeps nearly 70 percent of Thailand’s assets in the hands of its wealthiest 20 percent.

Detractors dismiss this class rhetoric and view the group as a misled rabble that held Bangkok hostage for a power-crazed ex-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Forced out by a 2006 military coup, the former telecommunications mogul is now fleeing corruption charges abroad. Thai officials contend he has financed the Red Shirts movement with an intent to topple the government, negotiate amnesty and return to power.