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Reform, Not Revolution, for Thailand

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
April 12, 2010

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Over the past month, the streets of Bangkok have been transformed from their usual traffic gridlock into a combination of political protest, street fair, and massive campout. Tens of thousands of demonstrators, primarily from the north and northeast of Thailand and wearing red, the color of deposed populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have decamped to the capital. In the city, they have blocked major intersections, shut down shopping districts, and closed down Parliament.

Though at first the protests went off peacefully, if bizarrely--demonstrators threw gallons of blood on the prime minister's offices--in recent days tension has mounted, as demonstrators increasingly have challenged the army troops keeping order. Days after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency, weekend clashes resulted in at least twenty deaths and hundreds wounded, as both demonstrators and the security forces allegedly shot live rounds at each other.

The protests cap off five years of near-constant political turmoil in Thailand, which have dragged down a once-prosperous democracy, leaving it with stalemated politics and a debilitated economy. In the fourth quarter of 2009, Thailand's economy shrunk by over 6 †percent, and many bookings at hotels in Bangkok and other tourist sites have fallen by more than half. Tourism is one of the largest earners of foreign exchange, and it's hard to get people to visit when protestors have blocked the streets and are launching grenades in town.

[T]hough [former prime minister] Thaksin remains a powerful figure, even in exile, the red movement has grown far beyond him to encompass broader social ideals.

In many ways, these demonstrations are simply the mirror images of past protests. In 2006 and 2008, wealthier demonstrators wearing yellow (the color of the monarchy) called for the removal of Thaksin and, later, other prime ministers aligned with Thaksin. Those yellow protests proved enormously effective. After the 2006 yellow rallies, the army stepped in and removed Thaksin, and in 2008 the judiciary, heavily influenced by the conservative monarchy, disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime ministers, allowing Abhisit, an urbane favorite of Bangkokians, to take power without having to win an election.

Societal and Regional Divides

Much of the media have portrayed the red-yellow divide as a simple class battle. The reds are the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais and benefited from Thaksin's populist largesse; the yellows are the Bangkok elites, including the monarchy, army, big business, and the judiciary. Elite Bangkok media, like the Nation newspaper, portray the mostly nonviolent red protestors as rural hordes planning to pillage the capital.

Of course, there is some truth to this divide. And yet the rich-versus-poor portrayal is too simplistic, as is the idea that the red shirts are demonstrating simply to get back Thaksin. Many red shirts are not poor--upon arriving in the capital, they were cheered by many lower-middle class and middle class Bangkokians, who wore red in support. And though Thaksin remains a powerful figure, even in exile, the red movement has grown far beyond him to encompass broader social ideals. The Bangkok press charges that the red demonstrators are funded primarily by Thaksin, but in reality they have developed their own social networks and sources of funds, making them a movement with legs.

Instead of a simple class divide, the Thai protests are the result of several major cleavages in society. In one sense, the struggle is a battle between elites. Thaksin, a hard-driving telecommunications billionaire, symbolized new wealth in Thailand, which has developed an antagonistic relationship with the scions of older power, who tended to look down on nouveau riches like Thaksin and his close associates. The struggle also is a regional divide, between Bangkok and central Thailand on one hand and the north and northeast, historically possessing different dialects and cultures, on the other hand. And, in a larger sense, the red shirts represent not just the poor but Thais who feel they've been excluded: excluded from the benefits of globalization, which has worsened Thailand's income inequality; excluded from political decision-making, which is concentrated unhealthily in Bangkok; and excluded from the traditional levers of power--the judiciary, the army, the civil service, and the monarchy, all of which tend to be highly conservative.

The Monarchy Problem

Behind all of this drama lies great fear. For six decades, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-reigning monarch in the world, has taken actions far beyond those of a typical constitutional monarch, stepping in whenever Thailand faced political crises and helping mediate tensions and restore order. Now eighty-two-years old, the king is ailing and has barely left the hospital in months; his son, the crown prince, is known as an arrogant hothead, and is widely despised by ordinary Thais. During Bhumibol's reign, the country never developed any other institutions, like effective courts, to handle political crises. Lacking these institutions, nearly all Thais I know fear that without "our father," as they call the king, the country's politics will spiral violently out of control.

What's needed, then, is both simple and difficult. Thailand needs political concessions, increased federalism, and a serious, open debate about the future of the monarchy. The king has tried to encourage this discussion, at least, but so far has failed. Strict lese majeste laws, backed by royalists in Bangkok, make it a crime to even openly discuss the future of the monarchy, and as the king ages, the royalists have tightened restrictions, blocking at least hundreds of websites that posted material related to the monarchy and, recently, arresting the editor of one of the most respected online Thai publications for failing to delete comments on her site about the king.

Thailand needs political concessions, increased federalism, and a serious, open debate about the future of the monarchy. The king has tried to encourage this discussion, at least, but so far has failed.

Thailand also needs to hold another election--Prime Minister Vejjajiva seems reluctant to call one--and then for all parties, including the military, to respect the results, even if a Thaksin proxy party triumphs. Elites simply will have to become accustomed to some loss of power. Yet at the same time, any party elected mostly by the working class will have to realize that it cannot just trample on the long-held privileges of the elites, or run the risk of inflaming Bangkok sentiment again.

This compromise formula is not impossible. Other populist leaders around the world, like Brazil's Lula da Silva, have learned as much, and prospered as leaders with a broad popular base. Such a leader is possible in Thailand--but as protests drag on, it looks less and less likely that any neutral arbiter will emerge. More likely, following this weekend's violence, the harder-line leaders in the army will use greater force against the demonstrators, or possibly stage a coup again, pushing Abhisit out of the way.

Wiser U.S. Policies Needed

For the United States, Thailand's unrest could have serious consequences. Thailand is a formal treaty ally, a major partner in the war on terror, a key trading partner, and a leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Serious backsliding on Thai democracy has put Washington in a difficult position, but it should not repeat its mistakes of 2006, when it essentially condoned the overthrow of Thaksin by the military and resumed a normal relationship with the government installed by the army. This unwise decision pitted the United States against the wishes of most Thais, who had voted for Thaksin, and led to an ineffective military government and years of political paralysis in Thailand.

This time, the Obama administration should make clear that it will not condone a coup, even if the Abhisit government falls or loses in an election; if such a coup occurs, Washington should be prepared to cancel the annual Cobra Gold joint military exercises with the Thais, which would be a serious rebuke. Washington also should make clear that it expects Abhisit, or another Thai government, to hold elections by the announced date, and to honor the results of those polls, even if the vote brings to power another Thaksin-like populist.

Many Thai officials, and some American officials, argue that the United States should not take such a hard line on democracy in Thailand, for fear of pushing the Bangkok government closer to China, which has made major inroads during the past decade. In fact, this was part of the rationale for essentially condoning the coup in 2006. But Washington cannot be engaged in a race to the bottom with China on human rights, and in any event, the United States still can provide types of cooperation--particularly, quality military-military cooperation--that the Thais cannot get from China.

A resolution to Thailand's crisis is needed urgently. If the government and the protestors do not quickly climb down from their confrontation, more violence, and a possible coup, is almost assured. Since the last coup set back Thai democracy by at least a decade, it's hard to imagine how disastrous a military takeover would be today.

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