American Thai Reaction To Bangkok Violence

The Thai capital of Bangkok has been the site of violent upheaval for the past several weeks, with supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra clashing with the Thai military. Wanni Anderson, a member of the Thai American community and a professor of Thai nationalism at Brown University, shares her impressions of watching the situation unfold from afar.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

The Thai capital of Bangkok is embroiled in a major upheaval. Thousands of protestors are rallying around former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was beloved for bringing health and education programs to the country's rural poor. He was ousted in 2006 in a military coup. Thaksin is living in exile, yet he remains in contact with his supporters and some believe he's responsible for orchestrating the demonstrations. Clashes between his supporters and the Thai military have left nearly 40 people dead and many more injured. In Bangkok, a major commercial and tourism hub has been turned upside down. This left us wondering what the reactions are here in the American-Thai community.

Professor Wanni Anderson joins us. She's part of the American-Thai community and an adjunct professor of anthropology at Brown University, where she teaches about nationalism and ethno-nationalism in Thailand. She was there a month ago and has been watching the situation since then. Professor, thanks for being with us.

Professor WANNI ANDERSON (Anthropology, Brown University): I'm glad to be invited to share my viewpoints.

KEYES: Can you just break down for us, briefly, who is clashing here?

Prof. ANDERSON: The situation over there is very complicated. But as you can see from the news, one of the major factors is the Red Shirt demonstrators that came into Bangkok. And the confrontation is now between the government, political - the government and the Red Shirt groups.

KEYES: Did you think that this was going to escalate to this point when you were there recently?

Prof. ANDERSON: I certainly hope not, because I think that it has become too violent than we would like to see. And all of us would like to see the situation resolved sooner than this. And it's very upsetting for all of us living in America to see the violence taking place over there.

KEYES: What exactly did you see when you were there a month ago? Were there warnings that this was going to escalate to this level?

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, I saw the beginning of the demonstration group at one lobbying(ph) site, and also interviews of quite a few people from different walks of life, from professors and taxi drivers and vendors and so on, in order to evaluate their viewpoints. Everyone at the time didn't realize it's going to last this long, and everyone thought that at a certain point in time, the key negotiation could be brought out.

But as we followed the news, including the effort of the Thailand Human Rights Commission, the Red Shirt factions denied - refused to come to a compromise. And at this point, as of this morning, I heard that some of the leaders of the Red Shirt factions has agreed to the latest negotiation just shared from the prime minister, Abhisit, and that there will be an election in November.

KEYES: Professor, what are your fellow Thai-American, your fellow expatriates here reacting to this? What are they thinking?

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, we are very, very disturbed, and what is most upsetting to us is to see people in different parts of Thailand being split politically in terms of the decision of who is right and who is wrong and what's the right political action. Of course, a demonstration for democracy is legitimate, but at this point, the specifications for the Red Shirt group that this is a demonstration for democracy has not been proven because we also within the Red Shirt group a faction that's commanded by military and policemen and using violent measures, including homemade bombs and M79 grenade launchers.

KEYES: Professor, I need to jump in briefly - and just tell us briefly, the protestors say they're demonstrating against deep social inequalities. Can you tell us briefly what some of those might be?

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes. Most of them - a large number of demonstrators came from the northeast, which is a section that has the poorest rice farming land. And during Thaksin era, he has introduced rural development programs by giving one million baht to each district. And for people in the northeast, that means a lot. And to a certain extent, this is a Thai behavioral style that once they have become a recipient of certain benefits, they can do - stay very, very committed and stay very grateful.

So a lot of the people in the northeast felt that Thaksin Shinawatra has done a lot for them. And they feel that their particular section of the country has been neglected so long.

KEYES: Professor, thank you very much. I know we have much more to say, but we are out of time. I'm so sorry. Professor Wanni Anderson is a member of the American-Thai community. She spoke to us from her office at Brown University, where she is an adjunct professor of anthropology.

Professor, thanks so much for your insight.

Prof. ANDERSON: You are very welcome.

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