Thailand and Elsewhere

Guest bloggers, Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

The recent turmoil in Bangkok has hogged the headlines across Asia. But Bangkok is not the only city in turmoil. A few weeks ago, demonstrators in Athens fought an hours-long battle with police ending with three dead and scores injured. In neighbouring Turkey, police with batons had clashed with protesters hurling bricks and fire bombs. Just across the Mediterranean, the dispossessed of Cairo decided to occupy the city centre, sleeping on the streets. Further afield, the Maoists staged a massive protest in Kathmandu, and in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, an urban mob attacked the residence of the president, tore up the plants in his garden, and drove him from power.

Bangkok’s red-shirt protesters are demanding a general election, return of their hero, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and an end to the “double standards” resulting from the concentration of wealth and power. It is easy to see all these struggles as unique.  The Greek riots are an offshoot of the country’s financial collapse. The Kathmandu demo is just one more stage in the country’s transition from monarchy. The Kyrgystani president had been elected to power on a surge of popularity, and had then turned out to be spectacularly corrupt. And so on. But what is really striking about all these incidents are the similarities. Big urban mobs. Fierce defiance. Security forces overstretched. States rattled. Middle class urbanites wringing their hands.

Perhaps the last time there was such a wave of protests across different countries was the summer of 1968. But the particular cities, the type of people on the streets, and the demands were very different then. The contrast helps to understand what is happening today.

In 1968, the drivers of protest were an odd mixture of anger against the Vietnam war, left-wing rejection of capitalism, and anarchic utopianism bound up with drugs and rock music. The rallying call was revolution, a word with many, many different meanings. The people on the streets were mostly students and factory workers. The locations were cities in the most advanced countries of the world, France, Germany, US, UK, and Japan. The protests were a revolt against the affluence and complacency of the great post-war boom in the west.

Today’s protests are not in the advanced capitals but in the bloated mega-cities of the developing world and the ragged underbelly of Europe. Among the people on the streets, students and factory workers are hardly to be seen. The protesters are people who in one way or another feel they are being left out. In Greece and Portugal, almost one-in-five of the working population is now unemployed. They are angry at government for not protecting them – from the competition of places like China, and from the migrants escaping poverty in Africa or war in the Middle East. Cities like Cairo and Bangkok have been swollen by rural migrants, escaping a relentless decline of agriculture, condemned to the rat-race of the informal economy.

Everywhere, the rallying call is not revolution, just a better deal, something not so obviously unfair.

Over the past generation, cities like Cairo, Bangkok, and Kathmandu have been utterly transformed. They have grown in size, often several times. Born up by globalization, their centres have become not so different from the rich cities of the west. Their middle classes now think of themselves as part of a global middle class. They buy the same brands, watch the same movies, grasp the same ideas. For the third world peasant a generation ago, such shiny affluence was beyond sight, beyond imagination. Now with globalization’s shrinking of space and time, it’s on display every day, from street level, or in the virtual worlds of television and the web. The sense of unfairness is a mix of aspiration, frustration, and comparison.

Many of these protests are taking place right at the commercial core of these cities. Not in the villages. Not in the suburbs. Not on the campuses and in the government districts like in 1968. The division is not between classes in the old sense, but between those who have done well and those who have done badly from globalization.

Many of these eruptions are happening in places where people like to go on holidays. These are parts of the world which have a great stock of natural or cultural resources – beaches and sun and islands and temples and ancient monuments and pretty dances and festivals and colourful clothing. They also have lots of people who will work for low pay and learn to adopt a good service attitude. The governments and economic elites of such blessed parts of the world have tended to take the easy way out. They have sold off these plentiful resources and cheap people on the expanding globalized market. Resource-strapped countries like Japan, Korea or Taiwan did not have this easy option, and so put more effort into making their people more productive through education, skill, and technology. Resource-stressed countries like India and China are now following a similar route. The resource-lucky countries now find they have environmental crises which drive people into the cities, and increasing difficulty competing on the world market because of low levels of skill.

As the red movement has grown, some people have tried to imagine it away. They argue that the protest is unreal because there is no social basis, no such thing as class, no reason for complaint, nothing behind it but Thaksin’s money, some geriatric activists and the third hand. But in truth, the Bangkok turmoil is just a small part of something that is happening in many parts of the world.

Pasuk Phongpaichit is Professor of Economics at Chualongkorn University, Bangkok, and Chris Baker is an independent writer.

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