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Thailand’s Endless Endgame

BANGKOK – The hospitalization of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has brought Thailand’s most daunting question to the fore. The country’s wrenching political struggle over the past several years has, at bottom, concerned what will happen after the ailing 81-year-old king’s reign, now at 63 years, comes to an end.

Thailand’s endgame is being shaped by several key events: the military coup of September 2006, the current military-supported constitution and election in 2007, street protests and seizures of Government House and Bangkok’s airports in 2008, the army-brokered coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that has ruled since January this year, and the Bangkok riots in April. At stake is the soul of an emerging Thailand, with far-reaching ramifications for developing democracies elsewhere as well as the broader international community.

Thailand’s color-coated crisis pits largely urban, conservative, and royalist “yellow” shirts against the predominantly rural “red” columns of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For much of Thailand’s long economic boom of the past two decades, wealth resided mostly in the Bangkok metropolitan area, a boon to the burgeoning urban middle class, but deeply resented by the rural majority.

While the rural population had more than enough to eat, their economic opportunities and upward mobility were limited by a shoddy education system and docile state-run media that fed them soap operas and official messages. For a nobody to become a somebody, all roads led to Bangkok and its prestigious prep schools and universities. Thailand’s farms became increasingly alienated from the urban elite. Thaksin recognized this urban-rural divide and shrewdly exploited it, upending the elite consensus that had long prevailed.