Polls: reds, yellows here to stay

28 June 2010

How do people feel about inequality, politics, reds, and yellows?

One result of the political turmoil is that some have realised they don't know their fellow countrymen, and this ignorance is becoming a handicap. Over the last three years, there has been a flurry of surveys trying to find who is stirred up and why. Many of these are too small in scale or too biased in design to take seriously. But a few have both scale and quality. This is very useful. There are lots of pundits and commentators ready to tell us what the great Thai public thinks, but it's better to listen to the people direct.

The Thailand Development Research Institute conducted a large survey about poverty and inequality. They asked respondents why certain people are poor. In all 62 per cent say the poor are poor because they are born poor, while 36 per cent say the poor are lazy. Of course, it is mostly the richer respondents who come out with the laziness argument. Similarly, 75 per cent say the rich are rich because they were born rich, while 41 per cent (mostly the richer respondents) say they work hard.

Over three-quarters think that the income gap in society is too wide. A third think it is intolerably wide. Among the people at the bottom of the heap, that proportion goes up to almost half.

Several commentators have argued that the poor are happy, and that mobility precludes social tension. These data suggest they are dreaming. Most people, especially those nearer the bottom of the heap, think you are rich or poor from birth. They are aware of inequality, and they don't like it.

In the wake of the Songkran riots last year, another survey was commissioned by the Thai Health Foundation, an independent institute funded by sin taxes. The sample was over five thousand people spread widely across the country.

When asked about their level of interest in politics, four-fifths placed themselves in the upper half of the scale. Three-quarters follow political news - larger than any other type of news. Some 41 per cent say they have high interest in following political news regularly. Three-fifths think Thai politics are in crisis. So much for the silent, uneducated, disinterested mass.

When asked what is the biggest problem of democracy, the largest answer is corruption. That is quite usual in such surveys. More interesting is the problem ranked second: interference in politics. Over three-quarters of the sample think that privy councillors should not get involved in supporting or opposing political movements. And 56 per cent believe the army should have no right to perform a coup, rip up the constitution, or overthrow a government.

The survey then asked people if they had participated in demonstrations. Around one-in-seven say yes. Some 6 per cent have taken part in yellow events, some 6 per cent in red events, and two per cent in other demonstrations. Now 6 per cent might seem quite small. But that would mean about 2.5 million reds and 2.5 million yellows. When asked why they participated, the single largest reason was that they could "no longer tolerate the political situation."

Respondents were then asked how they felt about each of the movements. In all, 18 per cent agreed with the yellow shirts, and another 23 per cent could accept them in part, while 26 per cent opposed them and a third declined to answer. For the reds, 20 per cent were supportive, another 18 per cent partially supportive, and a third were strongly opposed. From this survey, each of the movements has support from about a fifth of the population. Remember this survey took place a year ago when the closure of the airport and the burning buses at Songkran were still in the mind.

Do people want Thaksin back? 46 per cent said yes and 54 per cent said no. Interestingly, this was a question on which nobody was neutral.

Finally, when respondents were asked about their general political opinions, 93 per cent believed that the constitutional monarchy is the most appropriate system for Thailand. 85 per cent want to retain the right to peaceful demonstration, and 79 per cent believe the government should not attack peaceful demonstrations. An overwhelming majority are opposed to an amnesty for politicians; they want the law to take its course. Only 24 per cent think the Democrat Party is fit to govern, with rather more slating the party as too sluggish and slow.

In short, this survey portrays a politically involved country in which people want democracy to work, want the army and other institutions to keep out, want the right to peaceful expression of opinion, and want the judicial system to function. It is also a country where the red and yellow movements have taken root, with significant numbers of active members, and broad support in the population.

It is worth noting that, though the survey was conducted professionally, farmers and manual workers are rather under-represented in the sample. This is a common problem. People who work hard are more difficult to interview. Correcting for the bias would probably increase support for the red, and reduce that for the yellow.

The political scientist, Anek Laothammatas, wrote an analysis of the survey results. He notes that, back in the 1980s, when the palace and barracks opposed a political movement, that movement was finished. Think of events such as the April Fool's day coup attempt. The resilience of the reds today shows that Thai politics is now in a totally new era. Anek concludes, "Both red and yellow have their own rationale, values, and ideology. We should not hope for red to defeat yellow, or yellow defeat red, but hope for them to compete, conflict, and compromise in a peaceful and more rational manner."

There is one last fascinating aspect of this survey. Almost a year after it was completed, it has not been published or publicly presented. Could it be that the survey's messages and Anek's commentary are just too far away from the mentality and trajectory of this government?