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What the Heck Is Going on in Thailand?

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
May 19, 2010
Foreign Policy

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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.

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