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Thailand: Beautiful and Bitterly Divided

This report was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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Kerek Wongsa/Reuters
A Red Shirt supporter holding pictures of Thailand’s ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at a rally in Bangkok, November 2013

Thailand has long had the image of a benign, stable country, which is a chief reason it has long been seen, at least by Americans, as a great hope for the future in Southeast Asia. It is relatively prosperous, growing not quite as fast as nearby China but at impressive rates of up to 7 percent a year. It is the world’s second-largest exporter of rice and the leading exporter of computer hard drives. Its troubling Muslim insurgency in the south is mainly restricted to a small part of the country. Thailand is ethnically largely homogeneous, overwhelmingly Buddhist, and ruled by a revered, exceedingly long-serving king. It is a beautiful country, with verdant mountains, a gorgeous seacoast, and rich alluvial, if flood-prone, plains. Millions of visitors have been drawn to Thailand for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and its physical charm, not to mention its reputation as a sex-tourism destination, for those who can pay for it.

But for the past eight years, Thailand has been in the grip of an extraordinary political crisis, pitting two intransigent mass movements, known as Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, against one another, each ready to take to the streets whenever it feels that the other has gained the upper hand. More than one hundred people have been killed in political violence as the crisis has unfolded and many more have been injured. Four elected governments have been removed from power, two of them by military coups d’état, the second of them on May 22 this year, when the army commander in chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, took control of the country after several months of disorder.

Between November last year and the time of the coup, twenty-eight people were reported killed in political violence. The two sides were reported to be arming themselves and preparing for battle. Many people in Thailand feel that the coup was unjustified, that different measures could have been taken to restore order, but many others welcomed the army’s takeover, convinced that if Prayuth had not stepped in, the country would have descended into civil war.

What is it about Thailand, America’s chief ally in Southeast Asia, that has led to so fierce and intractable a struggle for power? The standard explanation is that a new, politically aroused, and determined rural majority—largely current or former rice farmers—has emerged, and it threatens to take power from the entrenched establishment—what is called the Bangkok elite. This elite has lost every election held in Thailand for the last thirteen years. Beaten at the polls, it has kept itself in power through police and military and judicial intervention. In one instance, a prime minister opposed by the elite and its supporters was dismissed by the Constitutional Court because his appearances on a television cooking show violated the rule against working for private companies. The latest elected leader to be ousted is Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire who was elected in 2001 and ousted in 2006, notwithstanding his support from the Red Shirts. Weeks before the latest coup, Yingluck was removed from office by the courts, which acted as thousands of Yellow Shirt protesters paralyzed the day-to-day functioning of the government. They wanted to do away with democratic elections altogether.

The central figure in the confrontation between new power and old is Thaksin himself, a charismatic business tycoon whose election as prime minister in 2001 marked the first stage of the Thai conflict. Thaksin was a dynamic and even visionary figure. He revolutionized Thai politics, creating a new majority among previously ignored and disenfranchised rural people in the north and northeast. He had a chance to go down in Thai history as the man who led his country into a new, more prosperous democratic era. But Thaksin also had a very Thai tendency to use his office for personal enrichment, and he was persuasively accused of resorting to dictatorial methods, for example, appointing relatives and cronies to key positions, thereby undermining the independence of important regulatory agencies. This gave his rivals a good reason (or, in the view of his many loyal supporters, a flimsy pretext) for resorting to a kind of mob action to get rid of him.

A second feature of Thai politics is its apparently ineradicable tradition of interference by the army, a powerful and often admired institution in the country, which has a history of tense relations with some of its neighbors. There have been literally dozens of coup attempts, at least twelve of them successful, since 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. Other times, when the army has not taken control directly, it has used its power behind the scenes to select a civilian leader to rule in its place. It did that at least once during the current crisis, in 2008, when it pressured some parliamentarians from one party to defect to another, so that the army’s choice of a new prime minister could take office without a popular election.

Finally, there is Thailand’s monarchy, with its king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne for nearly seventy years and is regarded as a kind of bodhisattva, an embodiment of wisdom, a living saint. His semidivine image is deemed by those seeking power to be of crucial, legitimating importance, an essential ingredient of national unity. King Bhumibol has always come across as modest, unpretentious, and under the control of the super-elite group of counselors who surround him. He is popular and respected—and protected from criticism or even any deep questioning by the strictest lèse-majesté laws in existence in the world. It is criminal to question his legitimacy. But he is reported to be in poor health, nearing death, and the expectation of his demise has added to the stakes in the Thai struggle.

Thaksin, who now lives in Dubai but exercises a powerful influence over the Red Shirts, is a threat to the establishment, not merely because he wins elections and is corrupt, but because he is the only nonroyal figure in Thailand whose prestige rivals that of the king. It is likely to be far greater than that of the king’s successor, his son Maha Vajiralongkorn, with whom Thaksin is reputed to have cultivated close relations. Thaksin, in other words, threatened to supplant the super-elite groups whose privileged status derives from their closeness to the current king. This explains why throughout the political crisis of the past eight years the gravest accusation made against Thaksin, whether accurate or not, is that he aimed to put the monarchy under his control. Conversely, the proudest boast of the Yellow Shirts and of the establishment figures who supported them is that they are defenders of the royal family, without whom, they are convinced, Thailand would fall into disarray.1

The slogan of the new military junta that took power last spring from Thaksin’s sister is “Returning Happiness to the People,” which, it says, it will achieve in part by promoting reconciliation between the two contending sides. General Prayuth, the commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army at the time of the coup, and a career officer with a plainspoken and confident manner, might try to appease the Red Shirts by continuing some of the populist programs of rural investment that were invented by Thaksin and by suppressing any flare-ups of protest.

But the Thai political divide may be too wide and bitter, with too much accumulated enmity and too many incompatible interests at stake, for it to go away because an army commander orders it to do so. The junta may present itself as politically neutral and striving for reconciliation between what are called “the colors,” but its seizure of power is nonetheless and with good reason perceived to be a victory for the Yellow Shirts. If it tries to crush the power of the Red Shirts, then the calm that has prevailed in Thailand since the coup is very likely to give way to another round of furious confrontation. “The coup may have reduced chaos and violence…in the short term,” a study by a leading Washington think tank said a few weeks after the military takeover, “but it will not solve this crisis, nor Thailand’s core problems.”2

Thaksin is the scion of a wealthy Sino-Thai family from near the ancient capital of Chiang Mai in the Thai north. He made his fortune in the 1990s from a government-granted telecommunications monopoly. In 1998 he created a new party, called Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), that permanently transformed Thai politics.

Thaksin turned out to be an inventive and popular campaigner with new ideas; in the elections in 2001, his party won more seats in parliament than any party had ever won in a Thai election. He became prime minister, and he immediately began to fulfill his campaign promises. His underlying idea, inspired by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who came to Thailand for a visit, was to increase the number and kinds of assets that could be used in the countryside as collateral for low-interest loans. “Capitalism needs capital, without which there is no capitalism,” Thaksin said in a speech in 2003. “We need to push capital into the rural areas.” He created a stimulus program that included microcredits to farmers, cash infusions to Thai villages, low-interest education loans, and a new national medical plan by which anybody could get treatment for a flat fee of 30 Thai baht, about one American dollar.

His opponents accused him of overspending, but Thailand’s growth rate, which was low following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, quickly went up to about 7 percent. Thaksin’s program marked a shift in the amount of the national budget that went to Bangkok, with more now going to the provinces. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has over the years varied between 40 and 50 percent, moderate for a developing economy.

Throughout the countryside, peasants felt that for the first time a dynamic, forceful national leader had made the prosperity of the rural areas his main priority. Thaksin fortified his position with a somewhat heterodox Buddhist concept in a country where Buddhist concepts are part of the political discussion. The dominant philosophical strain of Buddhism, associated with the king, stressed what was called the sufficiency economy: the notion that a certain economic simplicity, an absence of greed, and an acceptance of modest circumstances were virtuous. The desire for more was a manifestation of the illusion of the self.

In his speeches, Thaksin promoted a different strain of thought represented by a contemporary figure named Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who emphasized the obligation to improve the world rather than store up merit for the next. After the anti-Thaksin coup of 2006, a new constitution that enshrined the sufficiency economy as a guiding principle was adopted in a national referendum, but despite a propaganda campaign in its favor, polls show that it was rejected by 62.8 percent of people of the northeast provinces.3

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Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, his wife (second from right), and members of his cabinet praying for the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, October 2014

The rural awakening that expresses itself now in Red Shirt activism was not all due to Thaksin. He came along at a time when the Thai countryside was already becoming more aware of the outside world, more sophisticated, and more demanding. Over the years, tens of thousands of farmers or former farmers have gone to work at the thirty industrial parks scattered across the country where computer hard drives and other advanced products are made. Many thousands of other villagers have gone to the cities, Bangkok especially, where they work as motorcycle taxi drivers, domestic servants, or in the country’s highly developed tourism and sex industries.

These rural immigrants are well aware of glamorous shopping malls that remain outside their economic reach, and they keep close contacts with their original villages, sending back money to parents and children they have left behind, or going back to vote. The anthropologist William Klausner, who has studied rural Thailand for sixty years, observed in one of his essays about a visit he paid to a village during the Thaksin era that the traditional Buddhist abbot had lost his importance to a political activist who is pro–Red Shirt. “Political views are held adamantly and aggressively, at least by Thaksin supporters,” he wrote, estimating that those Thaksin supporters made up 95 percent of some villages.4

In the north and northeast most villages designated themselves Red Shirt villages. A Red Shirt flag would often fly at the their entrances along with a poster of Thaksin. A local Red Shirt radio station broadcast news and interviews with him even after he was ousted from power and went into exile. All this Red Shirt activity was banned by the junta.

Thaksin served out his full term as prime minister, and then, in the regularly scheduled elections in 2005, his Thai Rak Thai party won 375 out of 500 parliamentary seats, a crushing defeat for its main rival, the Democratic Party. Thaksin started his second term as the most powerful elected official in Thai history. “He did the proper studies and sent the right message to the rural voters,” Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor in chief of the English-language Bangkok Post, told me on a visit I made to Thailand a couple of years ago. “Most important, he delivered [some improvements] right after the 2001 election. From there, his popularity increased and there was support even from the establishment. On the other side, he gutted the democratic processes.”

It was that “other side” that was Thaksin’s fatal flaw. In the early days, opposition to him consisted of wealthy businessmen in Bangkok who began to see him as a threat to their interests. But anti-Thaksin feelings rapidly grew into a genuine mass movement, consisting of journalists, many civil servants, people in the professional classes, a few labor unions, parts of the military and the police, and some members of the royal family, although they did not openly say so. Many people within this opposition had no apparent economic interest in Thaksin’s fall from power. But they came to see him as a potential elected dictator, a strongman in the Vladimir Putin mold, or perhaps comparable to Hun Sen, whose tight control of neighboring Cambodia has always been legitimized by supposedly free elections.

Thaksin’s chief biographers, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, have documented his dubious practices.5 He was accused of withholding state advertising from newspapers that reported critically on him and pressuring news organizations to punish journalists who did the same. He trampled on individual rights in a campaign against drug traffickers that involved literally thousands of extrajudicial killings by Thaksin’s forces—not a minor violation of the rule of law.

And then there was Thaksin’s conspicuous, even brazen use of his political position to further enrich himself and his family. In 2006, after his landslide election victory, his family sold its holding company, the Shin (for Shinawatra) Corporation, to a Singaporean sovereign fund, making a profit of nearly $2 billion, on which Thaksin managed to pay no capital gains taxes. The courts found no criminal wrongdoing in this transaction. Still, the sale showed how Thaksin could manipulate the law for his own benefit, and it gave new ammunition to a former supporter, a media tycoon named Sondhi Limthongkul, to win over mass support for an anti-Thaksin campaign.

Sondhi in 2006 founded the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which adopted yellow, the color of the monarchy, as its symbol, and soon the Yellow Shirts embarked on a series of demonstrations demanding that Thaksin step down. This is what led, after a few months of turmoil, to the 2006 coup, when Thaksin was in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Two years later, he was convicted of abuse of power in a transaction involving a land deal in Bangkok. He was sentenced to two years in prison, which caused him to leave Thailand in 2008.

Still, he remains a dominating presence in Thailand, making decisions for his Thai Rak Thai party or, since that party was banned after the 2006 coup, its differently named successors. In 2010, after the military oversaw the installation of an unelected Democratic Party government, 300,000 members of a group formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship—aka the Red Shirts—occupied the commercial center of Bangkok, a district of expensive shopping malls and hotels adjacent to the expansive greenery of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club—all symbolic of the social and economic gulf between the rural insurgents, with their weathered skin and unrefined accents, and the paler, more refined establishment that was keeping Thaksin out of power. After three months, the army, using guns and live ammunition, cracked down on the Red Shirt occupation, clearing the commercial center and killing roughly eighty demonstrators. Twelve soldiers were also reported killed.

The military attack of 2010 remains a vivid memory for the Red Shirts, and a deep grievance. There has been no comparable effort by the police or the army to control the Yellow Shirts, even when their actions were clearly not just disruptive but illegal. In 2008, the Yellow Shirts commandeered hundreds of buses and occupied Bangkok’s airports for over a week, basically sealing off Thailand from much of the outside world. Among other things, they surrounded the parliament building with razor wire to prevent a newly named prime minister from running the government. Such actions were used by the army to justify installing a new, anti-Thaksin civilian government in 2008, but in 2011, elections were held and, as usual, the Thaksin party won a clear majority of votes. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been named by Thaksin himself as the leader of his party, now called Pheu Thai (For Thais), became prime minister.

In November 2013, the Red Shirt–controlled lower house of parliament passed a general amnesty. It would have forgiven Yellow Shirt leaders for their part in the 2010 anti–Red Shirt crackdown, but it would also have enabled Thaksin to return to Thailand. This set off a new round of furious protests. Yellow Shirt militants forced their way into several government ministries, which they occupied for months. The police, in a rare official attempt to keep the Yellow Shirts under control, attempted to block them from seizing Government House, the office of the prime minister; nonetheless the building was surrounded and Yingluck had to be taken to an undisclosed location for her protection.

She called for new elections, but the Democrats refused to take part in them, instead sending their party workers to block polling stations. This led the Election Commission to invalidate the election results on the grounds that not enough votes had been cast. During their protests, Yellow Shirts seized several television stations in Bangkok and forced them to broadcast a speech by Suthep Thaugsuban, a ferociously anti-Thaksin former deputy prime minister who had emerged as the Yellow Shirts leader. Suthep demanded that Yingluck resign and “return power to the people” within two days. He also called for the abolition of Thailand’s system of democratic elections and for the government to consist of a council appointed by the king. That is essentially what Thailand got after the army took power: a council of ministers appointed by General Prayuth whose members, wearing identical white uniforms with gold braid, presented themselves to the king, who approved them, early in September.

The speculation in Thailand these days has mostly to do with General Prayuth and how he will manage the Thai crisis in the coming months. So far he has kept the country quiet, announcing a great many new measures in weekly broadcasts and promising a return to civilian rule, eventually. But perhaps the more important question is what the Red Shirts will do, and whether they will return to mass protest. The Red Shirts are not practitioners of nonviolence; many people felt threatened by them when they took to the streets in Bangkok in 2010. And yet it is hard not to sympathize with them. The leaders they voted for in free and fair elections have been removed from power as a result, essentially, of mob rule, encouraged by the elite and, in the end, validated by the army.

As for Thaksin, he is in many ways a compromised figure, ready to use his vast fortune to gain power. But was he the kind of strongman whose actions justified his overthrow by the military? What is clear is that the opposition party refused to participate in elections because it knew it would lose to him. “The solution would have been to enforce the law,” a prominent business consultant, Apirux Wanasathop, told me in July. He was speaking of the refusal of the police and army to restore order in Thailand by stopping the rampages by the Yellow Shirts. While Thaksin was in power, he said, he “still had to be accountable” to voters and the courts. “He would have been checked, but there is no check on the military.”

The junta has sought to eliminate Thaksin’s long-distance influence by banning Red Shirt activity, closing down the Red Shirt radio stations, and keeping watch on former Red Shirt leaders, who risk going to prison if they speak out. In an especially Orwellian touch, the regime has deleted Thaksin’s name from school history textbooks.6 Meanwhile, the Thai economy has slowed to an estimated 1.5 percent growth per year; rural indebtedness is rising, and the rice farmers who owe the money have been unable in places to plant crops because of a threat of severe drought.7 In other words, as that Washington think tank put it, the junta remains saddled with Thailand’s “core problems,” and chief among these is the anger and alienation of the rural majority whose awakening is what brought about the Thai political crisis in the first place. Don’t be surprised if the Red Shirts try once again to take power.

  1. 1

    See Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (Zed, 2014) for a full elaboration of the theory that a crisis over Thailand’s looming royal succession is the root cause of the turmoil.  

  2. 2

    See Phuong Nguyen, Gregory B. Poling, and Kathleen B. Rustici, “Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2010. The CSIS study outlined three possible future scenarios: the rise of a moderate middle, continued military rule, or civil war. 

  3. 3

    See Claudio Sopranzetti, “Burning Red Desires: Isan Migrants and the Politics of Red Desire in Contemporary Thailand,” South East Asia Research, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2012). 

  4. 4

    See William J. Klausner, Essays on Thai Culture in Transition: Social and Political Implications (Bangkok: Institute of Security and International Studies, 2010), pp. 64–67.  

  5. 5

    Thaksin (University of Washington Press, second edition, 2010). 

  6. 6

    Thomas Fuller, “Loved and Hated, Former Premier of Thailand Is Erased from Textbook,” The New York Times, September 16, 2014.  

  7. 7

    Thomas Fuller, “Household Debt and Signs of Drought Squeeze Economy in Thailand,” The New York Times, October 6, 2014.