Among the thousands of protesters who have occupied Thai government offices in Bangkok since Aug. 26 is Chokchuand Chutinaton, a U.S.-trained pediatrician. He joined the demonstration out of a desire to oust the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a close ally to Thailand's exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Although his animus toward both men is visceral, he also takes issue with their policies. "Thaksin's regime sold our sovereignty," he says, ticking off a list of betrayals that includes allowing "big companies … under foreign ownership," such as British retailer Tesco, to dominate the economy and sealing "trade agreements with other countries without [first] asking the people." He also laments culturally inappropriate imports, the decline of mom-and-pop shops in Bangkok and unfair trade. "This affects me," he says, "because I love Thailand and want to help my country."
Put in Chokchuand's terms, Thailand's political crisis begins to sound familiar. Indeed, the campaign to remove Samak—whose imposition of emergency rule last week edged the country of 65 million toward a potentially bloody confrontation—is in the broadest sense a struggle over globalization. The dynamic is akin to that seen earlier this year in South Korea, where leftist groups nearly toppled newly elected President Lee Myung-bak for opening the local market to American beef. And there's a bit of Hugo Chávez in the antigovernment People's Alliance for Democracy, which disagrees with Samak's regime on free trade, the role of foreign investors and the suitability of Western-style democracy in the kingdom.
Thaksin and Samak are by no means pure free-traders. They champion a sector of Thai society ignored by the old political elite—impoverished farmers—and practice dual-track economic policies that combine populist perks for the least well-off and greater participation in the global economy. But they are far less hostile to free markets than the PAD, a collection of groups that saw their power and prestige challenged by Thaksin: civil servants threatened by his efforts to trim bureaucracy, trade unions representing industries facing privatization, an urban middle class that resents rural development initiatives and traditional Buddhist groups that fear wholesale Westernization of Thai culture.
PAD founder and media baron Sondhi Limthongkul is leading the backlash. In contrast to Thaksin, who often spoke of elevating Thailand to the ranks of the developed world, Sondhi advocates a "reasonable society" no longer burdened by debt and obsessed with "how many cars or washing machines" people own. He favors limits on foreign investment, opposes privatization of utilities and warns, "Don't impose a free trade, consumer-oriented society on Thailand."
The genesis of the crisis is arguably voters' rejection of PAD's austerity plan in December's elections. In early 2006 PAD led mass demonstrations against then Prime Minister Thaksin, which led to a bloodless coup eight months later. The ruling junta quickly fell out of favor for mismanaging Thailand's economy and held elections—which Samak and his People's Power Party won in a landslide. Sondhi promptly soured on democracy. The victors and the electoral system, he says, are corrupt: "Representative democracy is not suitable for Thailand."
In some respects the PAD is an antiglobalization protest group. In the past two weeks it has briefly seized three airports, disrupted long-distance rail service, called on unions to mount a national strike and threatened to cut Bangkok's power and water supplies, all with the goal of forcing Samak's resignation. Despite issuing an emergency decree, the government has not overtly impeded the demonstrations, preferring to let public frustrations mount. In a Bangkok University survey, seven in 10 respondents disagreed with the blockage of roads and storming of government buildings, and only 5 percent would support a coup to oust Samak.
How might it end? If Sondhi and other People's Alliance for Democracy leaders were arrested, it's doubtful that their movement would survive for long. At the other extreme, street violence could intensify until Thai generals succumb to their traditional urges and install a junta. Although the coup two years ago was bloodless, similar interventions in 1976 and 1992 left scores of civilians dead in Bangkok. In a third scenario, Samak could dissolve Parliament and schedule a new election. "But the same guys would get in again, so it wouldn't resolve anything," says John Virgoe of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Perhaps not, but it might underscore the fact that most Thais want the nation grow and modernize, not pull back in favor of the old entitled classes. Otherwise, Sondhi and his PAD cohort would already be running the country.