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Rich-poor divide underpins Thai crisis

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
  • A rift between the economic elite and rural poor is feeding a unique political divide
  • Availability of cheap telecommunications countrywide is helping fuel protests
  • "It's (now) more about why 2 percent of the population gains 80 percent of the GDP"

(CNN) -- A rift between Bangkok's economic elite and the growing clout of Thailand's rural poor is feeding a unique divide in a country that is no stranger to political turmoil.

"We have had conflicts in 1973, 1976 and 1992, but this is unlike anything we've seen before," said Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the governor of Bangkok, as government troops moved on the area near the city's business district where thousands of protesters have been encamped since March. "Those conflicts were more political, but here they go right into the heart of society."

Past divisions where more a clash of political personalities than a class division, said Paul Quaglia, a former CIA officer and head of PSA Asia, a Bangkok-based security firm. Access to affordable telecommunications across Thailand also is helping transform the nature of this conflict.

"It's impossible to overstate how important the ability of the rural poor to communicate beyond government censors has been in this protest," Quaglia said. "Everyone has cell phones, everyone has access to the Internet, to Twitter; the community radio stations in rural areas have been very active."

Moreover, the health of the nation's revered king has raised questions over the future role of the monarchy in Thailand, Quaglia said.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, has been hospitalized since September after complaining of fever and fatigue. King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, wields little direct political power, but serves as a stabilizing force in Thai society. "We may be coming to a time when there is a sea change in the unofficial control the monarchy has on society," Quaglia said.

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"This has evolved into something much more than complaints about Thaksin being ousted," said Quaglia, referring to the billionaire former prime minister who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. The protesters at the heart of the current conflict support Thaksin.

"It's becoming more about why 2 percent of the population gains 80 percent of the GDP," Quaglia said.

Class barriers and class differences are now at the heart of the conflict, the Bangkok governor told CNN.

"In Thailand, there is a great deal of social mobility, especially mobility upwards ... this is one of our strengths," Sukhumbhand said. "I think we have to go back to the traditional values of our society and build from the ruins we have witnessed today and are continuing to witness."

Indeed, the street scenes of dark smoke rising against the backdrop of tanks and gunfire is hard to reconcile with Thailand's reputation as the tolerant "land of smiles." The Southeast Asian nation draws millions of visitors to its pristine southern beaches and to tribal areas in the mountains north near the Laos and Myanmar border.

Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told CNN that outside of the areas directly affected by the protests and military crackdown business continues in most of Thailand. However, he acknowledges the damage that the conflict has done to tourism, which accounts for just over 6 percent of the country's total economic output.

Many foreign companies have moved executives and their families out of the center of Bangkok and closer to the international airport in case they need to evacuate, said Quaglia, the security specialist.

It's becoming more about why 2 percent of the population gains 80 percent of the GDP
--Paul Quaglia, security specialist

There also has been a sell-off in Thai stocks by foreign investors. The Stock Exchange of Thailand closed after its morning session Wednesday due to the escalating conflict on Bangkok streets.

"Investor sentiment is shot," said Korn, the Thai finance minister. "However, our stock market is robust -- in fact, it went up yesterday (Tuesday)."

"Thailand is an open economy ... we will recover from this," Korn said. "The economics I'm less concerned about ... What I'm worried about is the political division and social division."

He said the government has done a poor job communicating all it has done to subsidize rural farmers, bolster education and increase the social safety net for aging citizens.

"This message has not been received sufficiently at the rural level -- the perception is that we haven't done enough for the rural poor, although the reality is something different," Korn said.

CNN's Colleen McEdwards contributed to this report

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