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Waiting to Exhale in Bangkok

For weeks, the Thai government has forewarned violent outbreaks and massive unrest tonight in Bangkok. We've got police in Robocop riot gear, checkpoints and soldiers on standby.

Why? The Thai Supreme Court just ruled to drain more than half of the $2.3 billion family fortune once belonging to fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters -- Thailand's self-proclaimed "have nots" -- were expected to burn down Bangkok tonight.

From my window, nothing appears to be on fire. Geckos are chirping, babies are wailing and the factory workers down the street have been hammering whiskey since closing time. In short, everything is perfectly normal.

For now. Protesters promise to deliver in mid-March what was expected tonight: an all-out "final battle" summoning one million protesters to rally in Bangkok. (By the way, I think I'm on my fourth "final battle" declaration in two years. Rhetoric-wise, can we maybe get a little more Gandhi and a little less Monster Truck Rally?)

The have nots -- better known as the "red shirts" -- want to topple the government, force new elections and tear down what they call "rule of the aristocrats." That's what I heard from every single red shirt protester I interviewed today outside the courthouse.

One retired man told me he'd rather "accept death than be ruled by the elites."

Numerous academics have said reducing Thailand's troubles to simple have vs. have-nots class warfare is a cheap oversimplification by Western journalists. I mostly agree. But I'm hearing less and less about Thaksin and more about the "aristocrats" and "double standards" and the "elites."

The movement appears to be ever so slightly putting distance between Thaksin, the ex-cop-turned billionaire politician who successfully tapped a vein of resentment running through rural and urban-poor Thailand. That's probably wise. It's easier to defend a movement for equality than a cult of personality driven by a guy that's legitimately connected to corruption and human rights abuses.

So how are the "have nots" going to live out their increasingly furious rhetoric? What does "toppling" the government really mean?

And will they resort to violence as they have in the past?

If they can actually summon one million people -- a huge logistical achievement -- then they won't have to. A million people don't have to torch buses and throw rocks at cops. They can sit down in the street, block Bangkok's already-miserable traffic and vow to remain until the government steps down and calls new elections.

Depending on your point of view, that's either civil disobedience or extortion. But would it work?

I'm not certain. What I do know is that this level of class resentment in Thai society won't go away with a "final battle" or a so-called "order-restoring" coup. It will likely come only with the prolonged changing of generations and passage of time.

 

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/thailand/100226/waiting-exhale-bangkok