The Thai government arrested leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement on Wednesday, but rioting continued to spread through Bangkok. Many reports note that the conflict generally pits the poor against the urban elite. But what, exactly, are the Red Shirts fighting for?
Government subsidies and democratic legitimacy. Former prime minister and exiled Red Shirt darling Thaksin Shinawatra launched a variety of programs to benefit poor farmers during his six-year reign at the head of the Thai Rak Thai Party. He implemented cheap universal health care and showered government money on villagers. Opponents accused him of patronage and payoffs, but Thaksin's policies permanently ingratiated him to Thailand's vast peasantry. Thaksin's tenure ended with a military coup in 2006, and he has been in and out of exile since then. The Democrat Party, which took power in 2008 when a block of M.P.s switched sides under pressure from the monarchy and army, has terminated many of Thaksin's economic policies. Most of the Red Shirts are demanding immediate elections in which Thaksin could stand for office.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, founded his populist party in 1998. He won a plurality in the national elections three years later and formed a coalition government to institute his redistributive policies, dubbed "Thaksinomics." He offered farmers a moratorium on debt payments and loaned 1 million baht—around $29,000 at the time—to every Thai village for development projects. (Private banks had stopped lending to farmers, for the most part, after the 1997 Asian economic collapse.) Some hailed the funds as a miracle that spurred the country's economic boom, while others dismissed the program as baksheesh for village leaders friendly to the prime minister. Thaksin also offered heavy government subsidies to bring rural goods into the national economy and ordered state-owned enterprises to buy up his followers' products. But his signature initiative was the "30 baht treat all" program, which offered doctor visits for an 86-cent co-pay. (The co-pay was later eliminated altogether.) Analyses have consistently shown that the program shifted national health care resources away from urban hospitals and toward the rural poor.
Thaksin's policies yielded some tangible results. The number of Thais living below the poverty line dropped by 57 percent between 2000 and 2007, a period that encompasses most of his tenure. In 2004, Thai Rak Thai became the first party in the nation's history to win a parliamentary majority, and Thaksin was the first prime minister to win a second term. But he and his cronies were massively corrupt, paying for votes and profiting on private deals with the government. His regime was also violent: A 2003 drug crackdown resulted in 2,500 extrajudicial killings.
Since ousting Thaksin, the Democrat Party has dropped many of his programs. Universal health care remains in place, though, with more reliable financing than it once had. While corruption is still a problem, international observers agree that the current government is far more transparent than Thaksin's was.
Nevertheless, the poor largely view the Democrats' free-market policies as favoring the urban middle class and foreign investors. The party's grip on power is tenuous at best. It has no presence whatsoever in the north and northeast, where more than half the population lives. Even in Bangkok, loyalties are sharply divided. The military estimates that 70 percent of the Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok are from the city or surrounding areas.
Bonus Explainer: What's with the red shirts? They contrast nicely with yellow. When Thaksin was in power, opponents wore yellow shirts, the traditional color of Thailand's monarchy. Thaksin's loyalists took to wearing red to distinguish their movement from the royalists.
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Explainer thanks Zachary Abuza of Simmons College and Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds.