Jiw does not cut an intimidating figure. She is barely five foot tall and wears loose baggy clothing that makes her seem even smaller. But the 32-year-old accountant is full of energy, loudly and proudly declaring that she ‘will not leave until Thaksin [Shinawatra – the former prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup] and his cancer are gone from the nation’. We are interrupted as a speaker from the stage drives home a point. Jiw blows loudly on her whistle in approval. In the melodrama of Thai politics the whistle has become the weapon of choice and here in the heart of the opposition protest everyone is armed to the teeth.
The protesters accuse the current Thai government of being controlled by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, Thaksin, who, having been charged with corruption, now lives in self-imposed exile. They want the government to step down and are trying to shut down government buildings to disrupt normal play. The response to the protesters from the military and police has – so far – been peaceful.
Thailand has seen eight years of on-off turmoil, from street demonstrations to army intervention, each with Thaksin as their root cause.
Jiw states that, like so many of her fellow protesters, she cannot stand idly by while the country is plagued by a corrupt government. She ends the interview by trying to sound poignant: ‘If I had not come here today, how could I ever look my children in the eye? I am fighting for them – otherwise they will not have a country to grow up in.’
What was striking about Jiw’s statement was not its profundity or originality but how closely it echoed a statement that I had heard at another protest three years earlier. That protest, however, was at the other end of the Thai political spectrum: a pro-Thaksin affair that aimed to restore his allies to power and foster his return from exile. The name of the cab driver I interviewed may elude me now, but his sentiment struck a similar tone to Jiw’s. He said he was there because he wanted his children to be proud of him. He was fighting so that they could have a better future.
I often find that such declarative statements are similar because what it all boils down to is that the people of the world share the same hopes and passions. We all want to live in a society that is fair and equal and we all want what’s best for our children. But too often these common sentiments are separated by made-up constructs of nation, race, religion and politics. Often leaders who have much to gain from division and strife perpetuate these constructs.
Take Thailand’s current protests, which have once again choked government offices and halted the capital. The hundreds of thousands that have come out in opposition to the government and a proposed amnesty bill (which would have seen the return of Thaksin Shinawatra) have employed hateful rhetoric in their campaigns, encouraged by leaders who claim that they are fighting for the best interests of the nation when in reality they are fighting for themselves.
If we take away the politics of it all we find that protest leaders often have more in common with the ‘enemies’ they are protesting against than those that they are leading. For example, the leader of the current protest, former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban, described by many Thai political observers as a shrewd politician, has been implicated in numerous corruption affairs and openly wants to manipulate democracy to favour his cohorts. When his government was in power, it was accused by human rights groups of cracking down on civil liberties and individual freedoms and of carrying out a vast programme of censorship. These are the same charges that he, quite rightly, levies at Thaksin from his soapbox.
It is known that Thai politics is anything but stable. It is plagued by hypocrisy, self-interest and vitriol. The cycle of protests repeats so often that it has become a parody of itself. This will not change until people like Jiw and the cab driver realize that, like Suthep and Thaksin, they have more in common with each other than they were led to believe. The cycle will continue until the whistleblowing is directed at their leaders instead of each other. Only then can they bridge the gap that these politicians have wedged between them; only then can they throw off the shackles of hatred that have enslaved the nation.