Thursday, April 1, 2010

Young Thai Protesters Shed Culture of Restraint

Thailand is a country of 145,000 Mercedes Benz sedans and about 75,000 villages, many of them hamlets afflicted by poverty.

During nearly three weeks of mass anti-government demonstrations here, luxury cars have had to share the streets of Bangkok with the blaring megaphones of rural discontent.

Standing in the back of a pickup truck and shaded by a wide-brimmed hat was Thanida Paveen, a 43-year-old mother of two who explained the epiphany that brought her to the demonstration.

“I used to think we were born poor and that was that,” said Ms. Thanida, who grew up in the provinces but now lives in Bangkok and rents out rooms to factory workers in the city’s industrial outskirts. “I have opened my mind to a new way of thinking: We need to change from the rule of the aristocracy to a real democracy.”

The Thailand of today is not quite the France of 1789 — there is no history of major tensions between rich and poor here, and most of the country is peaceful despite the noisy protests. But more than ever Thailand’s underprivileged are less inclined to quietly accept their station in life as past generations did and are voicing anger about wide disparities in wealth, about shakedowns by the police and what they see as the longstanding condescension in Bangkok toward people who speak provincial dialects, especially from the northeast.

The deference, gentility and graciousness that have helped anchor the social hierarchy in Thailand for centuries are fraying, analysts say, as poorer Thais become more assertive, discarding long-held taboos that discouraged confrontation.

The haves in Thailand have a lot — the country has one of the most inequitable income distributions in Asia, a wider gap between rich and poor than in China, Malaysia, the Philippines or Vietnam, according to a World Bank report.

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Source photo: Thomas Fuller/International Herald Tribune

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