The recent general election results have again alarmed many people about how polarised Thailand has been since the military coup in 2006. The political rift suggests the north and north-east are the stronghold of the pro-Thaksin parties supported by the Red Shirt masses, while anti-Thaksin sentiment prevails in the south and Bangkok areas. For some, the ongoing political conflict deepens fear of a disunited Thailand.
The Red Shirt movement has already been blamed for creating a divide in setting up Red Shirt Villages to mobilise support for its political causes. Red Shirt villages number around 15,000, or 20% of all villages in Thailand.
Fear was reignited recently when a banner saying 'This country has no justice; I'd rather separate the country' appeared on a pedestrian bridge in the northern province of Phayao at the end of January 2014. Similar banners were seen scattered on the streets leading to the north as well as among some Red Shirt groups. There has also been an idea, widely shared in social media, of care-taker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra leading a government from the northern city of Chiangmai if she needs to retreat from Bangkok.
The military reacted strongly, announcing it would not tolerate this sedition. The Army Chief was reported to have ordered the Northern Army Commander to take legal action against an activist group in Chiangmai which called itself 'SPP Lanna' (pronounced Sor Por Por Lanna). The Commander claimed this group promoted the secession idea in the north, as the abbreviation 'SPP' bore resemblance to 'People's Democratic Republic (PDR)' in Thai, hence symbolising the campaign for the Lanna Republic. (Lanna is a collective term for the ancient northern region).
Many observers viewed the army's reaction as an effort to not only discredit the Red Shirts but also to divert public attention away from questions about the military's involvement in the clashes in early February. However, Prime Minister Yingluck and leaders of the pro-government camp claimed last week that they did not support this view.
Despite appearing to be a real concern for security authorities, a split is not realistic and merely reflects people's frustration with injustice.
First of all, the conflict in Thailand has not reached the stage where civil war is inevitable. Attempts at negotiation among elites continue, though mostly behind the curtain. There are clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces which sadly have caused deaths and injuries, but these conflicts are still small. The recent withdrawal of the core demonstration site from the streets to nearby Lumpini Park, and a call for possible negotiations, have cooled frustrations.
Moreover, a divide is geographically and politically unrealistic. It is true that the majority of the Red Shirt support is in the north and northeast, yet non-Red Shirt voters are not small in these areas. For example, looking at the party list votes in 2011, although the Pheu Thai Party received 3.3 million votes in the north and 7.3 million votes in the north-east, the Democrat Party received around 2 million and 1.6 million votes respectively in those regions. The 2011 election map also suggests there were other provinces that did not vote for either Pheu Thai or Democrat. In a modern plural society, different political ideologies can coexist. A separation based on a political map is too simplistic.
The split is also economically unwise. As the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, Thailand is domestically and internationally interdependent. The split would affect the link between rural production bases, commercial centres and international markets. Japanese investors have recently warned that they were willing to relocate their investment to other ASEAN locations should Thailand's political conflict continue. Local businesses also complained about economic losses during four months of street closure as well as the decline of inbound tourists. This was believed to be an important factor for the relocation of the protest site into the park. A drastic change towards extreme uncertainty is, therefore, in nobody's interest.
The split idea is also insignificant compared to the issue of separatism in Thailand's far south.
Nevertheless, the severe social schism leading to calls for a north-south separation should not simply be dismissed. The root cause is injustice. Manoeuvring by the judiciary, the election commission, the anti-corruption commission and mainstream media to sack and discredit the government have ruined the country's legal system and democratic processes, and deepened the discord between Thais. This situation allows violence to take place. Bombings, assassinations, threats and hate speech are now not uncommon. This is more worrisome than the unrealistic idea of separation.
Photo by Flickr user Nate Robert.