Thailand - Politics
By the year 2014 Thailand had experienced 18 constitutions, 28 prime ministers, 60 Parliaments, 1 revolution and 17 coups d’etat. Beginning with a brief experiment in democracy during the mid-1970s (the so-called “October generation” between 1973-76), civilian democratic political institutions slowly gained greater authority, culminating in 1988 when Chatichai Choonhaven -- leader of the Thai Nation Party -- assumed office as the country's first democratically elected Prime Minister in more than a decade. In 1991, yet another bloodless coup ended his term.
The juxtaposition between the largely urban, Sino-Thai upper-middle class and the Thai peasantry has increasingly emerged as the central cleavage in Thai politics. Robert Amsterdam writes that "Now fully integrated in Thai society, the Sino-Thai “hi-so” class tends to regard itself as superior – racially, culturally, and economically – to the poorer, darker, less educated, provincial Thais, who in turn display no small measure of resentment for their routine portrayal as meatheads or “buffalos.” ... the problem is not that provincial voters’ lack education, but rather that their increased education and political awareness has led them to demand a political role that Thailand’s Establishment is not quite ready to give them."
A basic deep split in society and the body politic remains, with the traditional royalist elite, urban middle class, Bangkok, and the south on one side ("yellow" in shorthand) and the political allies of ex-PM Thaksin, currently a fugitive abroad, along with largely rural supporters in the North and Northeast ("red") on the other. Court decisions forced two Prime Ministers from office in 2008, and twice the normal patterns of political life took a back seat to disruptive protests in the streets. The yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) occupied Government House from August to December 2008 and shut down Bangkok's airports for eight days, to protest governments affiliated with ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), followers of Thaksin, disrupted a regional Asian Summit and sparked riots in Bangkok in mid-April 2009 after Thaksin, now a fugitive abroad in the wake of an abuse of power conviction, called for a revolution to bring him home. While both yellow and red try to lay exclusive claim to the mantle of democracy, both have ulterior motives in doing so. Both movements reflect deep social concerns stemming from widespread perceptions of a lack of social and economic justice, but both seek to triumph in competing for traditional Thai hierarchical power relationships.
The main stream of political value which has dominated Thai politics since 1932 is related to traditionalism and conservatism. This includes respect of the monarchy and the hierarchical social structure and maintenance of tradition and culture based on Buddhism like concept of karma, bun (merit), barami (charisma). It also includes avoidance of conflict or confrontation, patron-client relationship, and tolerance. These traditional and conservative values seemed to fit well with military rule which had dominated Thai politics more than half a century; they were also congruent with the civilian governments. The civilian ruling elites and most of elected politicians were conservative and did not want to see drastic changes in Thai society.
The new century witnessed dramatic political developments in Thailand. With the coming to power of Thaksin Shinawatra through elections in 2001, it seemed that Thai democracy began to institutionalize itself. There was a high hope among the Thai public that stable democratic government was possible. Thaksin was able to project himself as a new type of political leader, well matched with globalization and the age of information technology. A highly successful telecommunication business leader who had become one of the richest men in the country in a very short period of time, he seemed to be the most suitable leader to lead the country to prosperity. In addition, the success in elections of the Thai Rak Thai party convinced the Thais that the party system was becoming stable and institutionalized. However, things did not turn out to be as expected.
The coup in September 2006 to oust Thaksin could not uproot Thaksin's influence. The conflict has shown no sign of ending. The return to power of a pro-Thaksin party showed that the coup leaders failed to achieve their fundamental goal of ridding the country of Thaksin's influence -- or, indeed, to achieve much at all. But the willingness of the authorities to allow a pro-Thaksin party to return to power in democratic elections may reinforce the notion that the Thai military is suited to play a special role in difficult times, and that it can be trusted to return to the barracks after calming troubled waters.
Some argue that the King's popularity had undermined the ability of Thais to adopt "culturally and mentally" the democratic principle of "one man one vote"; the obeisance paid to the Royal Family by elite civil servants, politicians, and the military fostered an attitude of "first among equals" and allowed the elite to feel justified in marginalizing the common Thai. According to this view, Thaksin was a threat to the monarchy and, by extension, to the Bangkok elite because he sought to concentrate power in his own hands. Thaksin's downfall was a result of a "lack of patience"; he should have just "waited the King out" and allowed the monarchy to fade away. The Crown Price would not have had the moral authority to counter Thaksin.
Democratic government is suitable for countries with a great number of middle-class people. But some argue that Thailand has a large number of poor people, who are in favor of populist policies. More political parties may turn to populist policies in the future, in order to win more votes, without thinking of how to get the money to implement the policies. This would create a problem concerning the country’s economic structure in the long run, as populist policies pass the people’s debts to future governments to shoulder. Ultimately, the country would be plagued with long-term debts, followed by an economic crisis, as happened in Latin America, where populist policies had been widely used.
The difference between urban and rural constituencies (according to the elite “urban view”) is that voting in farming areas is not guided by political principles, policy issues, or what is perceived to be in the national interest, all of which is (regarded as) the only legitimate rationale for citizens casting their ballots in a democratic election. The ideal candidates for rural voters are those who visit them often, address their immediate grievances effectively, and bring numerous public works to their communities. The ability of rural constituencies to acquire substantial power in parliaments under these conditions often led to doubts among the middle class, the mass media, and even academics as to the efficacy of democratic processes. For these groups, “democracy turns out to be the rule of the corrupt and incompetent.” This creates a dilemma, for although the middle class opposes authoritarian rule, in principle, they hold rural constituencies in contempt, regarding them as “parochial in outlook, boorish in manner, and too uneducated to be competent lawmakers or cabinet members.”
Allen Hicken argues that "...current Thai politics is increasingly defined by conflict between re-invigorated cleavages — specifically, class (wealth and middle classes v. poor) and region (Bangkok and the South v. the North and Northeast). However, these cleavages especially have long existed. Only moderately politicized, cleavage conflicts have generally remained just under the surface. What has changed in the past decade is not only that this cleavage has become more politicized ... but ithas, for really the first time, become particized. We thus witness poor rural voters becoming partisan in ways they had not been before."
Thailand's southern border provinces have long been host to an ethno-nationalist Malay Muslim separatist movement rallying around a regional “Patani” identity. Since 2004, separatists have conducted an increasingly violent insurgency in the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani, and Songkhla against symbols and representatives of central government authority, as well as against civilians, both Buddhist and Muslim, which has resulted in thousands of deaths.
The turmoil in 2013 and 2014 was part of a behind-the-curtain struggle among fractious elements of the royal family, the military and political power brokers to prepare for the era beyond Rama IX, who is in very poor health. However, open discussion of this in Thailand is muted by strict lese majeste laws, which effectively prevent a meaningful discussion of the role of the palace in Thai politics. Thailand is a constutional monarchy, but the political role of the monarch is much closer to that of George III at the time of the American Revolution than Elizabeth II today. The notoriously dissolute Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn [Edward VIII was a paragon of virtue by comparison], is widely-disliked, and his ascension to the thrown could splinter Thai politics, if prominent politicians openly questioned the presumed heir to the throne's fitness to assume the monarchical reins.
The country is divided between the yellow-shirts - Bangkok-based middle-class and establishment, as well as staunchly royalist south; and the more numerous red-shirt - the north and northeastern rural support base of the Shinawatra clan. The palace fears the red-shirt faction of the Shinawatra clan, but the pro-palace yellow-shirt faction cannot prevail in a free and fair election.
Elections are expected in 2017, and had been promised by the junta, should their constitution pass. Both major parties in Thailand opposed the proposed constitution, arguing that it is undemocratic. Student activists are among the harshest critics of military rule, and more than a dozen have been detained for protesting against the draft.
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