Shine comes off elite argument

Shine comes off elite argument

It was the highest-profile news containing no news of the first quarter.

Nobody knows what happened during the 30-minute private meeting between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda last Thursday. Almost all news outlets, however, presented it as a landmark event.

Without knowing what was discussed _ or if there was any discussion about anything at all _ many people, most of them politicians, hailed the meeting as the beginning of the long-overdue political reconciliation.

Some observers, including academics and members of the red shirts who targeted Gen Prem in their past protests, however, saw the PM's courtesy visit to the senior statesman as causing yet another political rift. Obviously, there are people who agree with PM Yingluck making a conciliatory gesture toward Gen Prem and those who do not want to see their PM "kowtowing" to the man portrayed as leader of the elite _ their supposed opposite in the prolonged, oftentimes class-based political battle.

Whether the meeting will produce such effects on the still unfolding Thai political drama remains to be seen.

What is clear at this point, however, is the meeting between Ms Yingluck, who for the sake of simplicity represents what former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the red shirt movement stand for, which is the "new power" through a democratic election, and Gen Prem, who embodies the "old power" based more on traditions and conservative values, the amataya-phrai or elite-peasants argument that has defined Thai politics for several years has been deal a heavy blow.

There is no denying that the concept of amatayathipathai, roughly interpreted as rule by the elite, is the most powerful polemic ever concocted by any political player.

Although it is a mix of elite-sounding, academic words, it does capture the feelings of inequality and injustice widely shared among the poor and the less well-off. It's no exaggeration that the assertion lies at the heart of the red movement. It helped spur its rapid growth and held together diverse factions and groups under the red umbrella.

Red shirt leaders have consistently portrayed Gen Prem as standing at the centre of a privileged network of people that essentially sucks the blood out of those crouching down below. Again, the embodiment _ the act of giving a human face to the conceptual enemy _ was a powerful engine that fuelled the ferocity of the red shirt campaign.

The courtesy visit by PM Yingluck and her deputy prime ministers to Gen Prem at his residence last week thus was a complete contrast to the rowdy group of red shirt protesters, led by a minister in this government, who went to lay siege to the same residence to pressure the privy council chief to quit his post five years ago in July 2007.

To a certain extent, PM Yingluck's humbling gesture _ that of a younger person paying respect to and asking advice from a senior figure _ could be seen as an attempt to put an end to the days of rowdy conflicts between the new, election-based power and the old, traditions-based leader.

The courtesy that PM Yingluck extended to the privy council president _ and his reciprocating it by receiving her at his residence _ will also go a long way to toning down if not eliminating the portrayal of Gen Prem as head of the red shirts' arch enemy, the elite.

Without a real chief, or a real face for the idea to attach itself to, then what would be left of the once potent amataya-phrai argument that could launch a hundred thousand ferocious protesters at certain times?

The fading of the amataya-phrai, class-based politics that has gripped Thailand so tightly in its divisive claws for almost a decade could be the beginning of real national reconciliation or it could represent a half-way house for this prolonged struggle for Thailand to find either real democracy or a political balance that allows its political players to have enough space to coexist without destroying one another.

Either way, there's still a long way to go before anything resembling national harmony returns.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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