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Survey Findings Challenge Notion of a Divided Thailand

March 30, 2011

Since Thailand’s color politics began pitting the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s (PAD) “Yellow-Shirt” movement against the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship’s (UDD) “Red-Shirt” movement, political watchers have insisted that the Thai people are bitterly divided in their loyalties to rival political factions.

Protestors in Bangkok, Thailand

The view holds that an old-guard elite preference for guided democracy has collided with a populist call from marginalized farmers and wage earners to return Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to power. The Yellow-Shirt occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2008, and the escalating Red-Shirt demonstrations and eventual security force intervention in Bangkok in May 2010 that left more than 90 dead, hundreds injured, and millions of dollars in property damage, have added fuel to the argument. Such unrest stands as stark reminders of the power of partisan politics to compromise public security, disrupt commerce, and divert government attention from the day-to-day affairs of state.

But, to what extent has Thailand genuinely become a polarized society?

Earlier this week in Bangkok, The Asia Foundation released its second national public perception survey of the Thai electorate. The survey captures first-hand responses from face-to-face interviews with a broad and nationally representative sample of 1,500 individuals conducted between September 17 and October 23, 2010. It revisited the core themes of democracy and governance explored in the Foundation’s first survey of the Thai electorate, in 2009, and added a new set of questions focused on the May 2010 demonstrations, color politics, and the prospect of national political reconciliation.

The survey results tell a mixed story of positive outlook and lingering concern. Fifty-four percent of respondents said that Thailand is going in the wrong direction, down from 58 percent in 2009. Asked to identify the biggest problem facing Thailand, 42 percent of respondents cited political conflict, nearly doubling from 2009. This concern underscores how profoundly the most recent political violence has registered in the public psyche. At the same time, economic problems dropped from 60 percent in 2009 to 35 percent in 2010, reflecting Thailand’s impressive recovery from the global economic recession.

The vast majority of Thais surveyed said they have no color affiliation. Only 5 percent of respondents identified themselves as strongly Yellow and 7 percent as strongly Red, while another 5 and 7 percent, respectively, identified as leaning slightly Yellow or Red. The combined color loyalties left a substantial majority of 76 percent who claimed no color allegiance. While the survey results reflect sharp divisions of opinion among Yellow and Red supporters on certain issues, they also reflect a striking diversity of opinion or factionalism within the two color movements.Thailand electorate chart

Forty-nine survey questions serve as a base of analysis of political polarization. In 47 percent of cases, the majority of Red and Yellow sympathizers were closely aligned with the majority of respondents that professed no color affiliation. For example, 93 percent of respondents said that democracy is the best form of government, while 59 percent said that the optimal democratic government is one that is most representative of the polity rather than the best educated. A resounding 97 percent of respondents said that Thais have more values that unite than divide them. Reds and Yellows further agreed with the majority that double standards exist in the judicial process, that reconciliation efforts must be initiated before elections are held, that the presence of election observers would raise confidence in the integrity of the upcoming national elections, and that decentralization would help reduce conflict between urban and rural society, colors, and the persistent communal conflict in the Deep South. While there was no strong consensus in apportioning blame for the deaths that occurred during the May 2010 demonstrations – with 37 percent faulting government, 40 percent blaming the demonstrators, 4 percent holding both sides responsible, and 19 percent declining to comment – there was a shared apprehension that further political violence was bound to occur in the year ahead.

The Foundation’s March 28 survey launch featured analysis on the survey findings by a panel of three distinguished Thai academics and political commentators:  Assistant Professor Dr. Nongyao Nawarat of the Faculty of Education of Chiang Mai University; Associate Professor Dr. Phichai Rattanadulok Na Phuket, Deputy Dean of the School of Social and Environmental Development of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA); and Mr. Kavi Chongkittatavorn, columnist with The Nation. Three striking views emerged. The panelists emphasized the uniformity of support for democracy, and for the resolution of the political crisis among Red and Yellow supporters, and that the majority of survey respondents professed no political loyalties. Calling for more nuanced and responsible reporting, the panelists criticized the Thai print and broadcast media for failing to acknowledge these commonly held views, and appealed to editors and reporters to assume a more responsible role in shaping an environment for consensus and reconciliation. The panelists said that Thailand is experiencing a profound social and political transformation that holds little scope for any single view to dominate, with the future of Thai politics best shaped by good faith negotiations and compromise on a level playing field.

As Thailand awaits the announcement of a national election date in a few weeks, we hope that these and other perspectives drawn from our national survey findings and the broader national mood will serve as potent messages to candidates and political parties on the value of connecting with the Thai people and demonstrating by action and example that the expectations and aspirations of the population at large are heard and valued.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org.

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