Backstory

What the Heck Is Going on in Thailand?

What the Heck Is Going on in Thailand?

View a slide show of Bangkok burning.

The idea of Bangkok spiraling into total chaos — as it has over the past week, with 40 people killed so far in street battles between anti-government protesters and the military — is shocking to foreigners. Thailand is not Iraq, or Yemen, or Pakistan; as portrayed in endless books, tourism advertisements, and films, it’s a lush and peaceful place, the type of country where’d you take a honeymoon rather than a hostage. And until recently, that image was mostly accurate — for nearly 20 years, Thailand had avoided serious political violence.

But the unrest that has consumed the popular vacation destination since the first spark of violence on April 10 is less surprising to the Thais themselves. Thailand’s idyllic image has overshadowed serious tensions that have been building for nearly a decade and finally exploded this month. Thailand’s rapid, globalization-driven economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s left out a large portion of the population, primarily those living in the rural north and northeast. By some measures the country actually suffers from worse income inequality than the neighboring Philippines, even though the former is generally thought of as a modernized country and the latter is often viewed as a semi-feudal, Latin American-style economy. But the emerging anger was as much about regional cliquishness as it was about class. Resentment built among Thais who might have been poor, but more importantly felt increasingly alienated from the country’s traditionally powerful institutions: the palace, the army, and the civil service, which tended to favor established networks of people from Bangkok schools, Bangkok companies, and Bangkok army training.

Yet even as Thais from the north and northeast, who make up the majority of the population, have suffered economically, over the past decade they have become increasingly politically empowered, diminishing the advantages previously enjoyed only by the elites. The Internet, community radio stations, a reformist constitution passed in 1997, and greater access to secondary education have created a rural population more knowledgeable about their rights, and more able to compare their own situation with that of other countries’ citizens. The advent of real democracy after more than six decades of successive military regimes meant that the rural poor, if they united, could vote in a leader more responsive to their concerns.

In 2001, they found their man, and Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist politician and son of the north, was elected prime minister. Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, and clearly interested in using government power, Silvio Berlusconi-style, to help his own family network of companies. But he also launched social programs, like inexpensive national health care and start-up loans to villages, that had an impact. By nearly every calculation, poverty shrank on Thaksin’s watch. Those efforts, along with a sophisticated advertising campaign, propelled him to an even larger majority in the 2005 elections.

But like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales in Latin America, Thaksin leavened his anti-poverty crusades with attempts to roll back the rule of law. He authorized a “war on drugs” that became a pretext for targeted killings of his political opponents, intimidated the Thai media, and undermined governmental institutions such as the courts. His immense popularity also threatened the power of the military and the palace — particularly King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, Thailand’s constitutional monarch, who was supported by the same elites and middle class in Bangkok who disdained Thaksin. In his more than 60 years on the throne, Bhumibhol had built himself into something more than a royal figurehead, accumulating political influence through behind-the-scenes maneuvering and alliance-building in Thailand’s elite political and military spheres.

But rather than trying to defeat Thaksin at the ballot box, the anti-Thaksin middle class and elites opted for extraconstitutional means. Protests calling for Thaksin’s ouster gave way to calls for the army to intercede; in September 2006 the military obliged, deposing the prime minister in a coup. Thaksin fled into exile, and today lives mostly in Dubai.

The coup was a major mistake. For all his faults, Thaksin was a democratically elected politician; ousting him by military means looked highly anachronistic in the 21st century, even if his overthrow was tacitly condoned by the United States, Thailand’s most important foreign partner. (Though George W. Bush’s administration officially condemned the coup, it did not cancel the pending joint military exercises with Thailand, and the U.S. has since worked easily with the government installed by the military.) Under Thaksin’s hastily installed successors, the political situation deteriorated rapidly. Thailand’s courts, also linked to Bangkok elites, disqualified two short-lived pro-Thaksin governments on questionable judicial grounds.

Spurred on by Thaksin’s persecution, the deposed politician’s supporters evolved into a larger, more formidable force. Although the former prime minister would continue to play a role in exile as cheerleader and, allegedly, financial backer, it was no longer just about him: The pro-Thaksin forces had become a real social movement, with goals reaching far beyond amnesty for the former prime minister.

Today, the “red shirt” protesters organized against the ruling government are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — a British-educated technocrat generally viewed as a reasonable and capable man, but one held hostage by the unstable situation — hold a new election, which probably would be won by the pro-poor Puea Thai Party. There are broader demands as well: Many red shirt leaders want the government to speed up programs to boost political and economic power in the provinces. They also want to start a discussion on how to reduce the power of traditional, urban-elite-dominated institutions like the palace and the military.

Some are even quietly suggesting that, after the passing of King Bhumibhol, who is 82 and sickly, the power of the palace should be sharply curtailed — not least because the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not enjoy anywhere near the respect of the current king and is unlikely to attain it. (They don’t make this demand too loudly: Thailand has strict lèse majesté laws that punish anyone who criticizes the king, queen, or crown prince.)

Are these demands reasonable? The demonstrators, who earlier in the protests massed more than 100,000 people in Bangkok, have certainly undercut some of their moral authority by allowing violent men, like the rogue general who was shot on the street last week, to join or infiltrate their demonstrations. And Abhisit’s government certainly has every right to restore law and order: If armed demonstrators were marching through Washington, D.C., burning buildings and tossing grenades, the U.S. federal government would take every measure necessary to stop them. However, Thai security forces have used excessive violence to quell the protests, and sometimes seem confused and poorly prepared to meet the demonstrators. The protestors’ main grievances, moreover, are real and reasonable, despite the violence that has marred their movement.

In the long term, what is needed in Thailand is some kind of real reconciliation. For elites in Bangkok, this will mean realizing that, in a true democracy, they will be outnumbered at the ballot box and necessarily will have to give up some political and economic power. For the rural poor and politicians like Thaksin who claim to represent them, this will mean realizing that winning a parliamentary majority does not give one license to trample on minority rights; any elected Thai leader will have to uphold the rule of law and support democratic institutions, like the courts and the civil service, in a way that Thaksin clearly did not.  The country also will need a real, open debate about the future of the monarchy, without the lèse majesté laws that have thus far inhibited discussion.

There is a precedent for this kind of compromise. In Brazil, President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva came into office primarily on the support of the poor, and has managed to oversee programs designed to slash poverty while simultaneously reassuring business and political elites that he is not a radical redistributionist. But for now, such a compromise in Thailand looks very far away.