The continuing political unrest in Thailand, directed by the "Yellow Shirt" movement against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is a very good example of the changeable and volatile nature of protest movements, particularly those inspired by the Arab Spring of the last few years. Ostensibly the protesters, drawn from the wealthy, educated and privileged elite of Thailand's larger cities, especially Bangkok, are attempting to topple the Shinawatra administration because of its corruption, the influence of the PM's brother Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted as Prime Minister by the Thai military in 2006 and what they claim is her political party's stranglehold on power achieved through populist policies. Looked at one way, the protests pit a westernising, educated protest movement against a corrupt and semi-authoritarian regime. In this view, there are good guys and bad guys, with Shinawatra's government playing the role of villainous oppressors, with Thaksin Shinawatra as the malevolent guiding intelligence. Against her are ranged the forces of righteousness in the form of university graduates with Twitter accounts and eloquent descriptions of their grievances.
Looked at another way however, and the protests take on a more mixed appearance. The Shinawatra party, Pheu Thai has won every election since 2001 in various guises. The Shinawatra's have received large mandates every time they have gone to the people. The protesters claim that their supporters, largely drawn from less well off Thai's living in rural areas, especially the north of the country, have been bribed by Pheu Thai's populist policies and are by implication too stupid or too greedy to be trusted with their choice. Of course, the privileged, urban, middle class members of the protest movement would never subject their own electoral choices to the same scrutiny. The protests racking Bangkok are not driven by a widespread sense of oppression by some dictatorial power, they are been driven by a wealthy elite trying to derail the redistributionist policies of the elected government. The real opponents of democracy are the protesters, who are demanding that parliament be dissolved and an unelected "people's council" take its place. Of course, they probably have some very particular ideas about who should be on the "people's council", and they probably don't involve any supporters of the Shinawatra's.
Thaksin Shinawatra may well have been guilty of the corruption charges which the military used as its excuse to oust him in 2006, and from which he remains in self-imposed exile. His guilt is also irrelevant. The Thai military conducted a coup, another in a very very long line of coups they have attempted or carried out over the last few decades. Yingluck Shinawatra, has taken her brothers place at the head of their political party and also as the leading political figure in opposition to the politicised military. By attempting to get rid of her and her party, and replace Pheu Thai's democratic mandate with an elitist undemocratic regime, the protesters are effectively destroying the foundations of Thailand's fragile democracy. The military has already said it may intervene in yet anther coup if the situation does not improve, i.e. if Pheu Thai is not removed from politics. And yet Pheu Thai and the Shinawatra's are the only people in Thailand with a mandate from the Thai people themselves. The protest movement, for all its noise and flash, represents an elite, privileged minority.
The deepest irony is that the Shinawatra's allegedly populist policies they have used to "bribe" their mostly rural supporters are the kinds of redistributionist policies that many in the west are calling for. Debt relief, food subsidies and increased development funds for farmers, all practical applications of the welfare state and social justice. And yet, where is the outcry in the west as a powerful, entrenched elite uses the positive publicity generated by the Arab Spring to try and take down a government that is actually enacting policies to help the majority of Thai's and alleviate rural poverty? Wherever you stand on the welfare state and redistributionist politics, having middle class university graduates out protesting about the injustice of poor farmers receiving help from the government is a little bit disturbing. What would the reaction be if graduates in Ireland or Britain came onto the streets, complaining that people on social welfare are paid too much, or that social housing and school meals are being used to bribe the less well off members of society? Western governments were disturbingly silent when a secular, wealthy minority in Egypt involved the military in their struggles, thereby overthrowing the democratic government the rest of their countrymen had voted for. Will they now stand by as the same grim acts occur in Thailand? Surely the Thai people deserve better.