June 29, 2010 3:00 am
A veneer of calm may have returned to Thailand after the recent violent protests, but in the dusty villages of the opposition heartland, a deep well of resentment seethes and bubbles, threatening a new eruption.
"Some groups feel disappointed, and they want to give up, but others want to use violence against the government," says Maliwan Rojpatraphasit, a lawyer who was among the last demonstrators cleared from central Bangkok when the army moved in last month.
She and other residents of Baan Laan, a village in the middle of the hot, flat central plains that make Thailand the world's biggest rice exporter, believe the country's traditional political elite long took the votes of the rural poor for granted. "We have been told to be satisfied with what we are given," says Mrs Maliwan.
For weeks, she and her fellow protesters occupied key areas of the capital to demand the resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister. By the time the army had forcefully ended the demonstrations , 80 protesters and six soldiers had died and 1,800 people had been injured.
Mrs Maliwan hopes that the disappointment of the people of Baan Laan and their neighbours will not translate into violence, but she says the government is not helping itself.
"They often talk about reconciliation, but what they have done is not reconciliation: they have gone on the offensive," she says.
Mr Abhisit has unveiled a five-point reconciliation plan, which includes upholding the country's revered monarchy, tackling social and economic injustice , curbing extreme media outlets, pushing constitutional reform and pursuing an inquiry into the violence surrounding the protests.
Critics say that the plan is too vague and the fact that it was constructed without any opposition input has fed a feeling of disenfranchisement. More-over, hundreds of protesters remain under arrest, many charged with terrorism. A state of emergency still exists in much of the country and there is little sign of Mr Abhisit reaching out to the opposition leadership to try to find common ground.
"If they put too much pressure on us, if they continue to arrest and intimidate us and nothing is done to solve the problems, then there will come a breaking point and it will explode," says Sudij Saiyalam, a rice farmer who attended the Bangkok demonstrations.
The residents of Baan Laan suggest that early elections - which polls indicate the opposition would win - would go a long way to calming their anger.
Mr Abhisit has not ruled out the idea, but has backed away from any firm timeline. A brief outburst of violence in the immediate aftermath of the army operation saw four provincial offices burned, but the country has been largely quiet since then.
"It is hard to tell where we go now: most of the leaders are quiet," says Mrs Maliwan. "We will talk again after the emergency decree has been revoked. Now we have to be quiet."
The emergency decree and the continuing incarceration of much of the opposition leadership have left a power vacuum that could see the direction of an angry and alienated movement devolve either to the shadowy advocates of violence or to Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister who remains a hero to many of the poor despite living in exile to avoid a prison sentence for corruption.
The protest leadership had been trying to distance themselves from Mr Thaksin, a Machiavellian figure who has little incentive to compromise since he was also charged with terrorism for allegedly funding the demonstrations.
What is clear is that Mr Abhisit's attempts at reconciliation are barely reaching his target audience in Thailand's north-east.
The prime minister appeared on television recently to urge Thais to join hands to rebuild the country, but got a hostile reception from one group of viewers in Baan Laan.
"It's all bullshit, it's just propaganda," says Virachai Imdecha. "If I was at home I would kick the TV in," he said, before walking off, leaving Mr Abhisit to talk to his empty chair.
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