Elections are a dry business in Thailand. Sales of alcohol are forbidden from the evening before voting until polls close.
This weekend, Thais vote in a general election shadowed by rumours of a military coup or the return of an exiled politician. The alcohol ban is enforced to lessen road deaths as millions travel home to vote.
“There may even be a coup. It has happened many times in Thailand. We say we are a democracy but in fact we are not at all,” says monk Phra Sang Pen, visiting Dublin to discuss Ireland’s first Thai-Buddhist temple.
About three thousand Thai people live in Ireland. Head of the Thai-Ireland Association, Wichit Isarotaikul has lived in Dublin for 30 years. But he keeps a close eye on the country where many of his family live.
Wichit says colours have dominated the political scene since a coup - the 18th – removed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.
Thaksin’s followers are red. Political party Phuea Thai is supported by a grassroots movement. The red shirts organised anti-government protests in May 2010. At least 90 people were killed in Bangkok with smaller riots in the north and east.
Wichit says: “That party (Phuea Thai) used to be run by the exiled prime minister but he is still holding the controls. His youngest sister will lead them in the general elections. It is a populist party and has many followers among the not-so well-off like taxi drivers or farmers.”
Thaksin is in exile in Dubai, evading charges of corruption. The former owner of Manchester City football club earned favour with policies including almost-free healthcare.
A coalition government supported by the military has held power since 2008 when the previous government was dissolved following allegations of election fraud. Supporters, the yellow shirts, are nationalists. Some leaders were blamed for sparking a recent border-conflict with Cambodia. Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva leads the largest party.
“The Democrats are the oldest party and are leaning towards being pro-monarchy. The current prime minister is seen by many as a puppet being controlled by the power behind the scene,” says Wichit.
Abhisit, an Oxford graduate, was not popular initially and violent suppression of the riots did not help. At a rally last week, he blamed the exiled Thaksin for inciting riots.
Both Phra Sang Pen and Wichit feel poverty causes the unrest. In spite of strong economic growth – about 4 per cent annually – the minimum daily wage for a ten-hour day is 200THB (€4.50). But a recent government report indicates almost one in five people work for less, and live on about 1000THB (€23/$33) a month – roughly a dollar a day.
These social problems dominate the election in spite of conflict in Thailand’s ‘deep south’. Human Rights Watch (HRW) say more than 4,100 people have been killed since 2004.
The four southern provinces – just over 1,000 km from Bangkok and 300 km from tourist island Koh Samui – are mainly Muslim with strong ties to Malaysia. A state of emergency was declared there following separatist action.
HRW accuses both sides of abuses. Insurgents target Muslims and Buddhists. Thai security forces have been involved in incidents including the Tak Bai demonstration when 85 people died.
“The use of homemade land mines, targeting rubber plantations owned by Buddhist Thais or ethnic Chinese, is an ongoing trend,” says HRW’s Sunai Phasuk. “It is part of the separatist strategy to disrupt daily life.”
Meanwhile, both Wichit and Phra Sang Pen feel reconciliation between the main parties is unlikely.
Phra Sang Pen tells a story of two brothers. Their father shows them a ball with one red and one yellow side. They sit in different corners and argue it is only one colour.
The monk smiles gently and says: “People are like this. If they would just share, discuss and open their eyes, there would not be a problem. Because I can say, they are blind. They cannot see the other side.”