Roots of Tension in Thailand

(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on April 19, 2009)

By Charles E. Morrison

Street politics appear to have become the norm in Thailand, a country once noted for its relative social stability, where even coups – Thailand has had 18 since 1932 – have often been genteel affairs.

Last weekend, red-shirted demonstrators supporting former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra caused the cancellation of an Asian summit in Pattaya and disrupted daily life in parts of Bangkok in hopes of forcing the resignation of current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.  This comes after the events of last November, when yellow-shirted demonstrators opposing the then-government of Thaksin's brother-in-law occupied government buildings and closed Bangkok's two airports.  

Thaksin lost the latest round of violence. Military forces contained the protests, forced the leaders to surrender or flee, and supplied buses to take rural demonstrators back home. But "victory" is surely only a respite, since the larger issues that are dividing Thai society and fueling the unrest remain unresolved. Power has already shifted back and forth three times since September 2006, with enormous disruptions to Thailand's society, economy, and international standing.

Thaksin and Abhisit represent opposing forces, both claiming to promote democracy.  Now living abroad to escape jail time for a conflict of interest conviction, Thaksin is the central, polarizing figure on the Thai political stage. A former policeman and telecom tycoon, he is the first Thai politician to fashion a power base independent of the traditional elite, Bangkok-centered institutions. He accomplished this by becoming a hero to many underprivileged Thais during the time he was prime minister through the lavish disbursal of money for rural health, education, and grants or loans to villages.

Thaksin was so popular in the countryside that he or his supporters have decisively won the past three national elections, and they are likely to win any new one.  In Thaksin's view, his last two victories have been stolen by agents of the urban middle- and upper-classes, allied with high echelons in the military, the courts, and some royal advisors. During the recent demonstrations, his almost daily video messages to his red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) supporters called for restoration of government elected by the majority.

British-born, Oxford-educated, Thai-Chinese Abhisit represents Thailand's traditional elite. He heads the country's most venerable civilian political party, the Democrats, but is also the beneficiary of military support and street protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).  Founded four years ago, the yellow-shirted PAD led urban protests against the Thaksin government, helping to trigger and justify a military coup in September 2006.

Following the coup, the military governed ineptly and had to step aside. When pro-Thaksin forces won new elections in December 2007, the PAD went back into action, culminating in last November's airport occupations. Although ultimately a Constitutional Court decision banning three pro-Thaksin parties, followed by political defections allegedly engineered by the military, brought Abhisit to power in December, the disruptive demonstrations and occupations by PAD provided the enabling environment.

Many in the urban and traditional elite regard Thaksin as a dangerous populist who gained personal fortune and won elections through bribery, vote-buying, and corruption. They assert that  his governing methods were undemocratic, and his extra-judicial, draconian methods toward drug peddlers and insurgents in Thailand's turbulent south lacked accountability.

But Thaksin's opponents also have a democracy deficit, not having won a national election and even proposing a new, non-democratic constitution to perpetuate elite control.

Political conflict is hardly new in Thailand, but in years past, the crisis might have been resolved by Thailand's respected monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.  Now the 81-year-old king is in fragile health, and some close to the palace are regarded as partisans.

With legitimacy problems plaguing both camps, along with the pressure of mobilized street mobs and determined adversarial leaders, an early resolution to the current crisis is unlikely. In fact, economic distress and longer-term uncertainty as the king ages may intensify the conflict.

The Thai political crisis reflects powerful forces that are reshaping the political landscape of parts of Southeast Asia. Increased levels of education and awareness, economic development, and new technologies are all helping to bring demanding new voices into politics, often threatening established elites and traditional power-sharing arrangements. Although true reforms have eluded the Philippines, and Burma has remained mired under military rule, Indonesia has already undergone a major – and so far quite successful – democratic transformation, and Malaysia seems poised for change.

The introduction of new political and social forces often comes with serious disruptions, as are now occurring in Thailand. But hopefully in the long run they will be accommodated in a new, more legitimate and democratic social contract that will endure long after the current political players have departed from the stage.

Charles E. Morrison, president of the East-West Center, once taught Southeast Asian politics at the Johns Hopkins University.

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