Foreigners love Thailand. Its pious devotion to Buddhism, easygoing people, and striking architectural styles have drawn attention ever since Europeans explored beyond their national borders. Its increasingly Westernized middle class and openness to outsiders have attracted business for decades. Thai food, temples, markets, massage, jungles, beaches, elephants, and hookers have drawn tourists from far and wide and in huge numbers; despite data to the contrary, I have a hard time imagining any other country in Asia rivaling it as a tourist draw.
Yet when Thailand makes the headlines, it’s usually negative. The past decade have seen protracted political instability — tourists were even inconvenienced! — and recently there was a coup. What’s up? Why is Thailand getting such a raw deal?
Although its history is actually shorter than those of other countries in Southeast Asia, as far as modern times goes, Thailand is one of the region’s most stable countries, with a high degree of continuity. It traces its lineage back through a few kingdoms stretching into the Middle Ages. Despite some nasty wars with its neighbor, Burma, and encroachments by France that cost it a bunch of territory in the east (modern Laos, Cambodia and south Vietnam), it managed to resist colonialism, unlike everyone else in the neighborhood. In a shadow of what was going on in Japan at the time, its kings pushed through a modernization program that strengthened the country and consolidated their own hold on power. In the century since, the Thai kings have lost their absolute power, but they remain as a guiding influence on the country, and the military has stepped in to dominate the state in their name.
Democracy has taken root in Thailand, but in fits and starts. A revolution in 1932 restricted the king’s power and empowered the middle class. The global student movement in the ’60s eventually hit Thailand as well, although the democratic flowering that resulted was brief. For the most part the army has run the show, with civilian prime ministers largely beholden to them. Thailand’s democratic system only really dates to the ’90s; its constitution was enacted in 1997.
Part of the problem is Thailand’s structure. Power is highly centralized; the governors are appointed by the Interior Ministry. But most Thais live in the countryside; Bangkok is the only major city. It is a huge city, and Thailand’s modernization has swollen it further, but most people still live out on the farm or in Thailand’s many small provincial cities. Predictably, this has led to an inordinate focus on Bangkok at the expense of the distant provinces. Thailand isn’t desperately poor, and Thais are generally content, but clearly there’s a lot of Thais whose voices aren’t being heard.
Into this void stepped Thaksin Shinawatra, a Chinese billionaire politician (there is a big Chinese community in Thailand). Elected prime minister in 2001, he tapped into this rural discontent by offering farmers improved welfare programs, infrastructure, and development schemes like microcredit and low-interest agricultural loans. His family built up a power base in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city way up north, and soon earned the loyalty of northern farmers and the poor everywhere. He also used his position to rake in huge profits for his telecom company and enriched his family in general.
After 5 years of this “Thaksinomics,” the military had had enough. It threw him out and governed the country again for a year. But although Thaksin has never returned to Thailand (he happened to be in America during the coup), his presence lingered. His political party (rebranded a few times; now it’s called Pheu Thai, “For Thais”) kept winning elections and forming governments. His political movement remains strong, with many of his supporters seeing him as the only Thai politician who really cares about the little guy. They donned red shirts and made noisy street demonstrations when the army sacked the pro-Thaksin prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, for taking another job (cooking show host!) while in office.
On the other side, the political struggle in the streets was met with resistance from a more conservative crowd. They wear yellow shirts (yellow is the color of the monarchy) and protest what they see as a corrupt, anti-business party. They are mostly middle-class and are strongest in Bangkok and the southern part of Thailand, which stretches down the Malay Peninsula. (It’s the part tourists visit.) They’re the ones behind the infamous airport closure of 2008, which is probably the time when foreigners most noticed this issue because it inconvenienced their vacations. Their political party is the Democrats, although they have often resorted to endorsing not very democratic methods of taking power, like relying on sympathetic courts or the military.
The last election came in 2011 and saw yet another Pheu Thai victory. Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, became prime minister. She had no political experience personally, but that’s O.K. — her brother gave her guidance via frequent Skype calls from his new home in the UAE. Her signature policy was a rice-buying scheme: the government bought huge piles of rice from farmers at artificially high prices. Unsurprisingly, the result has been that Thai rice isn’t very competitive on the global market anymore, and most of the rice sits in government warehouses, rotting.
It was these kinds of schemes (along with an attempt at a general amnesty that would probably have brought Thaksin back) that revived the crisis last year. A yellow shirt movement led by a disgruntled politician, Suthep Thaugsuban, tried to bring down the government and put up an unelected council in its place. A proposed election early in 2014 never happened. Street fighting broke out again. The Constitutional Court ejected Yingluck for abusing her power. Finally, on May 22, after a few days of maneuvering and positioning, the military couped again, and the red shirts are gone.
In the months since, Thailand is under military rule once more. A junta led by General Prayut Chan-ocha has consolidated power and seems to be in for the long haul. The 2006 coup didn’t change much (other than keep Thaksin out of the country), so the generals seem to be preparing to dismantle the Thai government and replace it with something a little more durable. Of course, this will mean blocking any more red shirt meddling.
On one hand, there are signs that the junta is seeking an accommodation with the red-shirt team. Fuel prices are being cut, farmers are being paid off, and a tax on land and inherited wealth is being considered — all tactics aimed to please the Shinawatras’ rural base. Its finance minister stresses these are not a return to Thaksinomics, since “they will not be for everyone, but only for low-income earners.”
On the other hand, the junta is also preparing a constitution that will block “populist policies” and have assembled a parliament free of Pheu Thai partisans. Red shirts have been rounded up, thrown in jail and tortured, although Yingluck was freed after only a few days after the coup. The usual military measures against public demonstrations have enforced an oppressive quiet upon Bangkok. There is a pervasive unease, and the generals seem to be getting nervous, banning the 3-fingered salute used as a symbol of rebellion in The Hunger Games, banning eating sandwiches in public (which has somehow also become a symbol of rebellion), and whining about black magic giving Prayut a sore throat. Textbooks are being rewritten to wipe out discussion of the loathed Thaksin and his party, and the government is emphasizing moral behavior and trying to repress Bangkok’s sleazy underground culture.
Lurking behind the political scene, as always, is the monarchy. It generally keeps a low profile, but reverence for the monarchy is ubiquitous in Thailand, and King Bhumibol’s portrait is seen everywhere, as if to remind people that he’s always watching. The monarchy is solidly in the yellow shirt camp, and the king endorsed the coup (as he did last time). The Shinawatras are considered a threat to the monarchy, although the extent to which they are depends on whom you ask. Still, the king’s opinion on politics remains vague, most likely because he’s sick. (He’s 86.) In fact, the king’s health is sometimes considered a major reason for the coup, since many expect him to pass away soon and nobody wants a succession crisis to burst onto an already chaotic political scene. Better for the army to take drastic measures to enforce stability and let His Majesty die in peace.
The Thai political crisis is a complicated issue, and this is reflected in the somewhat ambivalent response by (democratic) foreign governments and its miniscule media coverage overseas (the media likes stories that are easy to tell and summarize). Thaksin does come across as a slimy crook, garnishing his own mountain of wealth, bribing voters and pulling the strings from Dubai. The political upheaval stretches back to 2006, and it’s damaged Thailand’s international image and internal stability. The rice subsidy idea was a disaster. Street protests were turning violent. In this context, it’s understandable that the military would step in and try to restore order.
On the other hand, it’s hard to be sympathetic for Team Yellow. The Pheu Thai (or its predecessors) has won every election this millennium. The majority of Thais clearly favor its agenda. There is a deep gulf between the Bangkok aristocracy and the rural masses, and the former seem unwilling to acknowledge it. Instead it relies on Thais’ traditional reverence for the monarchy and established authority to bolster its rule, and cannot accept competing centers of power. It’s a classic example of a society uncomfortably adapting a Western political model before getting rid of it.
It’s a tragic story, considering all that Thailand has to offer. Despite its educated workforce, optimistic attitude, and strong ties with the West and other East Asian countries, its economy is stagnant, and foreign investment and tourism have slumped. Nonetheless, I predict that in the long run, Thailand will do fine. As I mentioned above, it is a stable country with a peaceful history and buttressed by three strong institutions: the monarchy, Buddhism, and a sense of Thai nationhood. Aside from an insurgency in the Vietnam War era and an ongoing war in the far south, it hasn’t experienced a civil war in centuries — in fact, it’s probably the most peaceful Southeast Asian country that’s not a tiny city-state. One issue that bodes ill for the future is that Isaan, Thailand’s northeast region, is ethnically Lao, which gives it a separate identity and could fuel high resentment to a government it sees as callous and self-serving. But I wouldn’t count on Thailand to fall apart just yet.