This weekend more than 20 people were killed in street battles between Thai troops and Red Shirt protesters. The latter are usually said to support the previous populist Thai president Taksin Shinawatra, and ask for new parliamenary elections. 20 human beings. What did they die for?
Credits: (cc) Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
The question is not mereley rethorical - political violence is always a tragedy, but it is hard to understand what these protesters are actually fighting for. To reinstate a corrupted politician who pays them to take to the streets? That's what their opponents claim. For a genuine democracy, and a more just Thai society? That's what they say themselves. My knowledge about Thai society is miniscule, but I am more than sceptical that they will ever attain such a goal, even if they manage to win this stand off with the military.
The prostpect for the establishment under siege is not much better. A popular king is eldery, and will be followed by a unliked prince. The appeal to democratic conflict solution looks desperate. It is true that politics should be decided by compromise and polling and not street fights, but Shinawatra was ousted by the military, and the Thai people have not yet had their say in free and open elections. If they would, most analysts predict the Red Shirts to come back to power.
Most likely, for most Thai people life will be the same, no matter who wins this pitched battle. Nonetheless, people are willing to die for the outcome. From an outside observer it looks like madness.
It would be less troubling if Thailand was a very poor, and very undemocratic country, but it is not. In stead Thailand is a success story in South East Asia, with a more stable democratic traditions, and a better developed economic life than all of its' neighbours. But I guess Thailand's problem is a very common one - economic growth is easy to attain, but once the wheels start running, political life stays behind. This is not the result of poverty, nor is it Thailand's problems. The problem is a world filled with politics without ideologies.
If you travel from Europe's developed North, to the less so Southeast, what strikes you most is not the economical and social inequalities, that are rapidly diminishing, but the lack of a political life that corresponds to social life. I have lived in Moldova and Bulgaria, and whereas many citizens in these countries would dismiss their rulers as thieves and liars, that is quite far from the truth.
There are political movements challenging the status quo in both these countries, and also that hard working and well meaning politicians exist within established structures. But the connection with real life is weak in this kind of countries. There is a vibrant social life, intelligent citizens, and a political sphere, but no real correspondence between them. Moldovans and Bulgarians don't waste their time bickering about foreign policy. Most people don't expect much more from their politicians than to stay out of their life.
In a country like Sweden, political parties more or less reflect contradictions within society. We have pro-Israel parties and pro-Palestine parties, and at any Swedish dinner party you can expect a heated discussion about the Israel-Palestine problem. There is a correspondence between the political sphere and social life.
Is this simply a matter of transforming societies, not yet fully democratic? I don't think so, as the same tendency is developed and developing countries alike. Participation in elections is waning, political movements struggle to keep citizens interested, and more and more votes go to obvious choices of dissent.
This is probably more related to a general trend of individualisation and commercialisation in a postmodern neoliberal society. In fact most parts of the so called developing world, especially Eastern Europe (which migh not belong to this cathegory any more), has had a head-start on Sweden into neoliberal reality. If we talk about regulations, Bulgaria is a much more liberal country than Sweden will ever be. But we are moving in the same direction. Sweden can afford to move slower, which is why we still bother to care about politics, but we are getting there.
There is a lot of truth in the talk about the end of ideologies. Most societies today seem to learn how to deliever increasing material wealth in a muted half-ready democracy. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, so much seems inevitable, so little seems possible to chosse. It is not hard to see why politics become slightly irrelevant in this situation, when only one way forward is reasonable.
And yet, the death of ideologies does not eradicate politics, or political violence, as the events in Thailand show. People continue to protest, because that is what humans do. The trickiest problem in today's world is that we continue to do politics, even after we have made politics irrelevant. And we really have no choice. But politics without vision becomes a mere power struggle, which is not a very promising concept... Maybe we should find a way to make politics relevant again? Maybe that's what every generation has to do for themselves.