A visit to Chiang Mai and a few hours spent at the museums and cultural institutions, plus a few conversations with embittered Red Shirt supporters, will immediately make clear to an outsider that the Lanna Kingdom never quite submitted to the Kingdom of Siam. And the Shinawatra siblings rise and fall in Thailand’s political field seems to be almost the same sort of fights as those of more older times, when kingdoms battled it out for power in the days of yore.
Now apparently this uneasy coalition of Lanna and Siam is taking a more overt turn. According to this Xinhua report dated March 3rd, titled “Acting premier Yingluck says Thailand "inseparable”:Thailand is one inseparable nation state and the caretaker government does not support any bid to ever divide it, said acting premier Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday.
Her comments followed news reports that army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha recently told the military based in the northern region to take legal action against a group of people in general and pro- government Red Shirt activists in particular for an alleged, unconfirmed bid to separate the country or to set up a new country named "Lanna."
It is also clear to outsiders that there is a cultural divide between the North and the South. The style and pace of people’s approaches to life is different. Bangkok and Chiang Mai appear to be inhabited by different kinds of people—the sophisticated, fast paced life of Bangkok gives ways to the slower, jollier and more hill-oriented life in Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, everyone appears to know everyone else. The Shinawatra siblings are known, and loved, in the hardier, more community-oriented way of smaller places.
So how will this cultural divide between the two power centers worked out? Clearly the Lanna world’s attempts to show their power via traditional politics hasn’t be successful, with protests and ousters marring their rule. As with the Catalan people in Spain, who’ve asserted their linguistic and cultural differences, or the Flemish and the Dutch split in Belgium, it appears Thailand needs to think of safe ways in which the Lanna culture and way of life can be celebrated and given equal political space, without it constantly being a cause of conflict.
The control of finance, investments, and new ventures are clearly in the hands of selected elites in Bangkok. And this has been the cause of the conflict, time and again. How to encourage new ventures and flows of capital in all parts of the country without disrupting the careful flow of Thai life is clearly a challenge the policymakers of Thailand have to think hard about. There are already huge disparities in income and class in Thailand—but on the other hand, there are also policies that have clearly benefited the ordinary citizen (think of the careful pricing of food, and the health insurance) which may become imbalanced if huge flows of foreign capital started to flow into the country.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s new Swarnabhoomi airport captures this paradox—on the one hand, he was clearly able to mobilize giant amounts of capital to build one of the most modern airports in Asia. On the other hand, the airport is a generic glass and concrete building which could exist in almost any part of the world—and more importantly, it wiped out all the small flower vendors and little fruit stands that catered to the ordinary guy and which used to exist in the more modest airport before.
How the big ambitions of the Lanna upstarts are going to accommodated by the entrenched, conservative hierarchies of power of Bangkok need to be seen. Clearly there has to be a balance on both sides—the Bangkok world needs to open up and become more accommodating, while the pace of the Northerners’ ambitions need to be scaled back just a tiny bit so that Thailand doesn’t turn instantly into the next Singapore or Beijing.
As with all conflicts, it appears to me that both sides need to come to the table and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. And as with all conflicts, an acknowledgement has to be made that two parallel powers can and do co-exist in the same country—if they are both given space.