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Bangkok Blues

How did the one functional democracy in Southeast Asia get so screwed up?

By , a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok's Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life. Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand's political system seemed to be settling down.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life. Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand’s political system seemed to be settling down.

From the 1930s to the 1990s, Thailand had essentially been ruled by the armed forces, in alliance with the business elite and the royal family, which still wielded enormous power behind the facade of a constitutional monarchy. In 1992, however, with the Cold War over and a more assertive Bangkok middle class no longer willing to tolerate military rule, massive popular demonstrations ousted the military regime and replaced it with a respected civilian government.

Following the military’s withdrawal in 1992, many Thais and outside observers thought the country would become a solid democracy. Thailand passed a progressive constitution in 1997, which guaranteed many rights and freedoms, created new national institutions to monitor graft, and strengthened political parties at the expense of the traditional unelected centers of power — the palace, the military, big business, and the elite civil service. It also set the stage for elections in 2001 that were probably the freest in Thailand’s history. Meanwhile, the Thai media utilized its new freedoms, along with new technologies such as the Internet and satellite television, to explore formerly taboo topics like political corruption and labor rights. The Thai Army’s leaders vowed that they would respect civilian control and never engage in politics again. In its 1999 report, the international monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a "free" country — one of only a handful of Asian countries receiving this designation.

Over the past six years, however, Democracy Monument and the area around it have come to look far different. As protests and riots have incessantly plagued the Thai capital, outbreaks of violence, and military repression of demonstrations, around the monument have, at times, left dead bodies lying just in front of it, blood splattered on the nearby pavement, and angry demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails laying waste to the surrounding streets. An informal shrine has sprung up in a place where the brains of one protester were splashed after security forces shot him two years ago. Meanwhile, all the political instability has had a serious long-term impact on Thailand’s economy, though in the short term the economy has struggled through. Tourism is critical to the Thai economy, and the violence scared off visitors. Many foreign investors are rethinking their plans for Thailand as well.

If Thailand can collapse, it suggests that nearly any developing country’s transition is less secure than it often appears. Since 2006, Thailand, once a poster child for democratization in the developing world, has undergone perhaps the most rapid and severest democratic regression in the entire world — despite having achieved middle-income status and, prior to the reversal, having held multiple contested elections. Now Thailand’s never-ending cycle of street protest, with the middle class and the poor pitted against each other in a fight for political power, paralyzes policymaking, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when the country is losing competitiveness compared with neighbors like Vietnam. The military has retaken enormous political power and constantly threatens another coup, while draconian new media laws have clamped down on a press and blogosphere that were once the most freewheeling in Asia. "It’s only going to get worse from here now," one Thai official told me in December. "Either another coup or all-out war in the streets."

How could this have happened? How did one of the world’s most promising democracies melt down so quickly? And what does Thailand’s regression tell us about the strength — or lack thereof — of democracy in many developing countries? Indeed, Thailand suffers from several of the problems that have plagued other emerging democracies, such as Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela, and have led to their regression over the past five years — a period that monitoring groups like Freedom House have marked as a global rollback of democracy.

Thailand’s meltdown actually started a decade ago. In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist former telecommunications tycoon, was elected prime minister, primarily by the country’s poorest citizens. Despite his goofy, gap-toothed smile, Thaksin was a savvy, mercurial, and powerful speaker, probably the best in Thai history, and he was also an Oscar-quality actor, capable of turning on his "listening mode" at any meeting, just as easily as he could scream at underlings.

Thailand’s nascent judicial and bureaucratic institutions were too weak to control Thaksin’s ambitions. He took advantage of his popularity to neuter the news media, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and viciously punish political opponents. When Thaksin was charged, early in his tenure, with concealing assets, he was acquitted by Thailand’s top court in a very close decision. Following the verdict, several justices alleged that they had faced intense pressure from Thaksin’s allies to acquit him.

Like other elected autocrats including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Thaksin’s friend, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thaksin viewed democracy as merely a series of regular votes, after which the victor could use his electoral victories to crush all other challengers. "Thaksin was not a democrat. He might have held votes, but he didn’t care at all about anything else that makes a democracy," said Surapong Jayanama, a longtime Thai official and diplomat. Thailand’s media increasingly became more servile, and according to Human Rights Watch, Thaksin launched a "war on drugs" (Thailand has a major methamphetamine problem) that provided a convenient pretext for attacks on his opponents and that wound up with some 2,500 dead, often killed in staged shootouts or other suspicious encounters.

Still, Thaksin remained extremely popular among the Thai poor, the majority of voters in one of Asia’s most unequal countries. Before him, no candidate had ever directly tried to empower the poor or provide them with voter education. Most of Thailand’s elitist politicians had traditionally ignored or diluted the votes of the poor by vote-rigging and vote-buying, installing cabinets dominated by a small group of Bangkok-based technocrats.

Thaksin’s government passed a universal health-care program that, according to World Health Organization studies, has saved at least 80,000 Thai families from bankruptcy. He enacted a program to provide loans to every village to start microenterprises, and he increased spending on primary education. Income inequality began to shrink under Thaksin’s tenure, and domestic consumption grew as well.

For all his flaws, Thaksin’s policies did resonate with the poor, and he succeeded in fundamentally transforming Thailand’s political culture: After Thaksin, the country’s poor majority was no longer willing to simply let a small group of elites run the country. In rural Thailand, village radio stations sprung up to capitalize on growing voter empowerment, while rural Thai farmers increasingly used the Internet and social media to become engaged in politics during Thaksin’s time. Many reclaimed the word phrai — meaning peasant or serf — and proudly began calling themselves that. They began referring to Bangkokians as amart, or elite. When I visited one northern town this year, vendors lined the streets selling pictures, T-shirts, and bumper stickers of the populist billionaire’s face, but nearly all residents told me that their cause was not about Thaksin alone, that he was just a symbol of the new force of the phrai.

As Thaksin increased his power, many middle-class Thai men and women — who had traditionally been the focus of reform efforts — came to doubt the value of democracy. Some genuinely feared that Thaksin was running roughshod over the foundations of the institution, subverting a free press and denying rights for criminal defendants — freedoms that they had fought hard for under years of military dictatorships. Others clearly worried that Thailand’s poor simply were not educated or smart enough to make informed choices in elections.

Thaksin did little to assuage these fears, as some other, smoother populists like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva might have. (Lula maintained his enormous popularity by combining programs to fight poverty and hunger with solid macroeconomic policies and personal assurances to the wealthy that he would not attack their holdings.) Thaksin failed to assure Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy that he would uphold the rule of law or that he would refrain from attacking their economic holdings — whether to actually redistribute money to the poor or (more likely) to line his own pockets and bolster his family’s powerful telecommunications company. But Thaksin never did this, and as a brash outsider to the country’s traditional elite, he was an intensely threatening figure.

This middle-class fear of the poor played on old stereotypes in one of the world’s most stratified countries. Crude cartoons in Bangkok newspapers showed the rural poor as water buffaloes (a major insult in Thailand) pulled by the nose by Thaksin. Some middle class and elite protest leaders called for a "new politics" in which the number of elected members of parliament would be sharply reduced, essentially a return to the elite, oligarchic control of the Cold War era. Or as one prominent Thai diplomat, who had gained fame for advocating for political reform in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, told me, "Perhaps we can have democracy some time far in the future, but not now. We need good people, good voters, to have democracy." He left unsaid who the "good people" who could handle the vote were.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to defeat Thaksin from within the democratic process, the middle class and elites opted out, striking a blow that may ultimately have killed Thai democracy. In 2006, middle-class and wealthy groups launched anti-Thaksin street protests that paralyzed parts of Bangkok; several years later, the same group of protesters, led by the same men, would take over the main international airport and the prime minister’s house, seriously wounding Thailand’s international image and again paralyzing the government. By the middle of 2006, many of the demonstrators were openly calling for the military, once thought to have returned to the barracks for good, to intervene to "save democracy."

The middle class’s conservatism was not unique. Far from being the force for change envisioned by Samuel Huntington and other advocates of modernization theory, the middle class in many young democracies is now actually acting as a brake on change. In the Philippines, middle-class men and women throughout the 2000s rallied in Manila to try to evict an elected government. In Pakistan, the middle class has increasingly called for a return of army rule after years of inept civilian government. In Bangladesh in the late 2000s, middle-class citizens supported a return of army rule, angry about the corruption of civilian politicians and fearful of the power of these elected populists. And now, one year after the Arab uprisings began, many middle-class and elite Egyptians, who a year ago joined protests to end Hosni Mubarak’s regime, are publicly calling for the military to retain a sizable role in politics in order to dilute the power of democratically elected Islamist parties that enjoy widespread support among the poor. In Syria, meanwhile, the middle- and upper-class citizens of Damascus have continued staunchly backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though its security forces have massacred thousands of civilians.

But in Thailand, the anti-democratic wave seemed to happen the fastest and become severest. In September 2006, the armed forces launched a coup, and Thaksin fled into exile. Thailand’s meltdown was gathering pace.

The King’s Speech

Unlike most other young democracies, Thailand has a unique institution that, during the worst periods of conflict, was supposed to serve as a neutral mediator, a means of resolution as a last resort. Although Thailand ended its absolute monarchy in the 1930s, the constitutional monarchy that remained had far more informal power — and respect among the public — than constitutional monarchs in Europe. And because the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has sat on the throne longer than almost any other monarch in history, he has amassed enormous quantities of goodwill among the Thai public (though any real survey of Thai opinion toward the monarchy would be impossible, since harsh lèse-majesté laws make criticizing the king and his family a serious crime.)

The king rarely intervened directly in public, but through a network of allies and advisors he indirectly wielded power, shaping governments and the country. Usually, he favored conservative governments run by an oligarchy, the military, and big business. During the Cold War, according to his biographer, Paul Handley, when King Bhumibol saw communists taking over neighboring countries and killing their royal families, he saw clearly that allying the palace with military dictators was the best way to save the throne and protect the country’s development. When the Cold War ended, however, the Thai military badly bungled a takeover of government in the early 1990s, resulting in shootings of middle-class Bangkok protesters, and the king’s position seemed to shift. He called both the protest leaders and the head of the Thai Army in front of him in May 1992 and publicly shamed them. The Army backed down, paving the way for civilian rule and the expansion of democracy in the 1990s. The king’s reputation was only enhanced, but because he had helped solve this crisis so well, Thais felt little impetus to build any other institutions (a supreme court, for example) that could serve as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. After all, they had the king.

In the early 2000s, the king’s more conservative side once again showed itself. Thaksin was the first politician who could potentially compete with the king’s popularity among the poor, and the monarch also may have feared that when his son, a man far less beloved than he, eventually took over the throne, the palace would no longer have the same influence, especially because it was widely believed that Thaksin had cultivated a close relationship with the prince. This time, when the Thai Army launched a coup in 2006, the king quickly took sides. He gave the coup-makers an audience and essentially proclaimed their government legitimate.

From there, the monarchy further inserted itself directly into politics and, by so doing, deprived Thailand of the last potentially impartial institution it had. The queen publicly appeared at a memorial service for an anti-Thaksin demonstrator, while the king gave public messages to the judiciary that were interpreted, by Thais and foreign observers alike, as telling them to use their power to go after pro-Thaksin officials.

When, a year after the coup, the armed forces allowed another election, another pro-Thaksin party won a majority in parliament, sweeping the votes of the poor. (Thaksin remained in exile, though still possibly pulling strings.) But the judiciary then came up with tortured ways to ban this party from politics, eventually paving the way for an army-backed, pro-elite party, the ironically named Democrat Party, to take over in 2008, in a backroom deal sculpted by the armed forces. The Democrat Party and its allies quickly began ramping up use of the lèse-majesté laws to absurd proportions as a weapon against dissent. According to scholar David Streckfuss, the number of lèse-majesté prosecutions grew nearly one-hundred-fold between 2000 and 2010. In recent months, the government sentenced an elderly man, sick with cancer, to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages critical of the king, though the court could not even prove that he sent the messages or knows how to use text messaging. This month, the man died. The government also sentenced a U.S. citizen named Joe Gordon to jail for translating portions of a biography containing some critical analysis of the king. Most recently, it has launched a lèse-majesté case against a girl for allegedly defaming the monarchy while she was in high school, the youngest person charged yet.

While theoretically protecting the monarchy, this increasingly hard-line policy has actually had the reverse effect. For the first time in decades, Thais are beginning to question the influence of an aging and clearly very ill king once viewed as all-powerful, benign, and even divine, and promoted by a propaganda campaign just short of Kim Jong Il levels. Meanwhile, the king rarely leaves the wing of the hospital where he has lived for several years, and he is known to have lived a separate private life from the queen for more than a decade. According to journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, who followed several public rallies in 2010 in Bangkok, he found participants yelling foul anti-king and anti-queen slogans, unthinkable just a few years ago. Online, in certain forums that evade the censors, such criticisms are common, and when I traveled over the winter to the north of Thailand, the heartland of the poor, I was shocked by how willing many ordinary Thais were to offer subtle put-downs of the palace to a foreigner they had never met before.

Rise of the Rural Poor

In the 1960s, or even possibly in the 1990s, Thailand’s military, palace, and elites might have succeeded in taking back control of the country following a coup. (Thailand has had 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of the absolute monarchy.) But in today’s era, Thailand’s poor no longer gives in so easily. And so, in the Rashomon-like puzzle of trying to figure out just who is pushing this once-vibrant country over the brink, the poor too have now begun playing a destructive role.

Thailand’s poor, furious that their votes seemed to have been overthrown, organized themselves to fight back and adopted many of the aggressive, undemocratic, and violent tactics of the middle class and elite protesters who had toppled Thaksin in 2006. Some groups of the poor, called the "red shirts" for their trademark color, did not want to employ violence or tactics that could paralyze government, but they were repeatedly stymied by hard-liners in their own red-shirt movement.

Like the Bangkok media that demonized the poor, red-shirt radio stations and publications in the north and northeast primarily began to demonize Bangkokians, calling for attacks on them and killings, as well as comparing urbanites to homosexuals and deviants. Groups of red shirts attacked the Democrat Party prime minister in 2009, shutting down an Asian regional summit and seriously embarrassing Thailand, which had to cancel the meeting. The clashes spread that year to Bangkok, where protesters and residents fought pitched battles on several streets. Rather than trying to get his supporters to cool down, from abroad Thaksin egged them on, essentially calling for all-out war and providing financing for many of the red-shirt groups.

After hundreds of thousands of red shirts descended on Bangkok in the spring of 2010, a smaller, harder-core group of them settled into a more permanent encampment in the center of Bangkok, where they blocked traffic and shut down part of the central business district. They refused to leave; the Thai Army and the pro-elite government refused to use basic, well-tested nonviolent means to clear the streets, instead turning quickly to soldiers firing high-velocity live bullets throughout the downtown, even hunting down unarmed protesters and ambulances. Eventually, the clashes between the protesters and the government resulted in the death of at least 90 people in May 2010 and arson attacks on many buildings in downtown Bangkok. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of protesters who survived were then detained by the security forces, often without charge.

Ultimately, in July 2011, another election was allowed, won again by a pro-Thaksin party — led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister. Still, the election has solved little, and today Thailand sits on a precipice, with all sides prepared for more violence. Yingluck has made an informal truce with the armed forces and, apparently, the palace, but her red-shirt supporters will not live with a truce for long. By all accounts, Thaksin, now feeling his oats, is preparing to return to Thailand this year in order to probably play an even larger role in politics again. This spring, he held a large rally in neighboring Laos and pronounced that he would be returning shortly, sending his backers into ecstasy. Meanwhile, according to several articles by writers close to the military, the armed forces — whose leadership is intensely royalist — is preparing for his return by removing anyone seen as potentially pro-Thaksin, shoring up its senior officer corps, and essentially preparing for a possible coup. And so, Thailand’s deadly cycle could begin again.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick

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