The Roots Of The Thailand Conflict

As Thailand’s protracted political crisis spirals into violence, with at least 20 people killed in the last few weeks, the protesters, the government, and many outside observers offer a similar diagnosis of the unrest: it is a class war between wealthy Bangkokians, clad in yellow, and the poor rural masses, clad in red.

But this theory is far too simple. The red-shirt demonstrators, who demand the restoration of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have some rich backers, including Thanpuying Viraya Javakul, who has appeared on the red shirts’ protest stage, and Thaksin’s old adviser Pansak Vinyaratn. The forces in yellow, who support the current Democrat Party government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, include middle-class shop owners, who earn less than some red-shirt businesspeople. Instead, the violence stems from multiple cleavages in Thai society: old elites against new elites; Thais hailing from the north and northeast against Thais from Bangkok and the south; and people close to the traditional levers of political power, such as the monarchy, against those who no longer trust these institutions.

One major divide is between the supporters of Thaksin and the old-business elite. Early on, Thaksin worked as an officer in the police force, an institution seen as second class by the Army, which has rival patronage networks. Thaksin used police connections to make his way in business, first to start a company that loaned computers to the government, then to break into telecommunications, which made him a billionaire. This path set him up for conflict with long-established Bangkokians, who looked down on the police, embraced technology slowly, amassed power through the patronage of the crown and the Army, and favored settling disputes in quiet, closed-door negotiations. They bristled at Thaksin’s confrontational, nouveau-riche style: he flaunted a vast collection of priceless watches, and his chief policy adviser once told reporters, “Don’t f--k with Thaksin.” After he became prime minister in 2001, Thaksin inflamed the old elite with what they saw as attempts to dilute their privileges, and to bestow government favors on himself, his allies, rural villages, and small businesses.

Some of Thaksin’s earliest supporters ultimately became disillusioned by his disregard for the rule of law, which included unleashing the security forces in a drug war that human-rights groups say resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings. But even after he was deposed in September 2006, many of his new-money business allies remained loyal. And the impact he made on Thailand’s economy—thanks to loans to villages, cheap health care, and moves to undercut the power of old-line businesses—can’t easily be reversed, fueling continued rage among the old guard.

A second fault line is regional: Thailand’s political parties have never become truly national, partly because they have tended to organize around one or two “big men” with connections in one part of the country. When Banharn Silpa-Archa, a previous prime minister, took office, he allegedly directed huge sums toward his home province of Suphanburi. Today the Democrat Party is led by Abhisit, an urbane Oxford grad, who boasts strong support in the south and Bangkok. But he has little innate ability to connect with Thais from the rural north, or the northeast, where Thais speak a different dialect from Bangkokians and Thais from the south, and where people have a rural cultural background more akin to neighboring Laos than to the rest of Thailand.

Thaksin’s family and business ties trace to Chiang Mai, the major city in the north, and as prime minister he directed government spending toward villages in the north and northeast. During his five-year tenure, average income in the northeast rose by nearly 50 percent, and support for pro-Thaksin parties remains strong. The fact that Thaksin’s brutal campaign against insurgents targeted the three southern provinces near the border of Malaysia has helped deepen the regional divide.

Although class plays a role in the conflict—per capita GDP in the capital remains as much as 10 times higher than in some parts of the northeast—the red shirts’ anger is driven more by a feeling of exclusion. For years, northerners and northeasterners have felt that Bangkokians look down on them, and that they have been largely left out of the benefits of globalization. Red shirts were largely excluded from traditional centers of power: few senior military men, advisers to the palace, judges, and top civil servants hail from the rural northeast. Most elites are from Bangkok and rise to power through a small number of private schools or military academies in the capital, and then on to prestigious universities in Bangkok or abroad. What’s more, the enormous size of the extended royal family, which is concentrated in Bangkok and intertwined with most leading companies, ensures that Bangkokians have an inside track to many top posts.

Until recently the sense of exclusion was virtually guaranteed by the Thai constitution, written and rewritten by military governments in a way that deliberately diluted the power of rural voters. Hopes of change came after reforms in a new 1990s constitution paved the way for the rural Thai majority to elect their champion, Thaksin, in 2001, and to reelect him in 2005. When he was forced out in 2006, and kept out by the connivings of the military and the conservative Thai courts, all the old rural resentments came boiling back in the form of the red revolution.

Thaksin had attempted to reduce the power of the old elites, replacing many civil servants and Army generals with his loyalists. He gingerly attempted to influence the monarchy by promoting himself as a powerful, almost presidential type of leader, a role the king long had played. He also allegedly courted the crown prince, a move apparently designed to give him influence over the prince when he became king. But Thaksin did not get far: strict lèse-majesté laws, backed by royalists in Bangkok, make it a crime to openly criticize the palace. Still, the red shirts are now attacking the power of Prem Tinsulanonda, privy councilor to the king, who quietly influences key government decisions. In fact, the red shirts attack Prem even if doing so could be seen as a critique of the monarch himself.

To ease these tensions, Thailand needs to address more than the rich-poor divide. It needs a serious debate about the future of the monarchy, which will help reduce fears of further unrest when the king passes from the scene. His successor, the crown prince, will not enjoy the same degree of respect, and many Thais will want the crown to become a true constitutional monarchy. Thailand also needs to shift political and economic power to the provinces, which has worked in neighboring Indonesia. Increased federalism would give rural Thais more reason to engage in local politics, and less reason to storm the capital.

Thailand also needs to hold another election—and for all parties, including the military, to respect the results, even if a Thaksin proxy party triumphs. At the same time, any working-class party will have to respect the rule of law and move gradually against the privileges of the elites or risk another yellow revolt. Unfortunately, as protests drag on and the king, who has mediated disputes in the past, appears unable or unwilling to step in, compromise looks remote. More likely, Army hardliners will use greater force against demonstrators, and Thailand’s many fractures will grow deeper.

Kurlantzick is a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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