Thailand Slides Toward Civil War

Last week, after Thailand's high court disbanded the country's ruling party and antigovernment demonstrators finally ended their weeklong occupation of Bangkok's two airports and their three-month siege of Government House, weary stranded travelers could have been forgiven for thinking that the political crisis was over. The estimated 350,000 foreigners who'd been trapped by the blockage have begun their journeys home. Yet for Thailand's citizens, its politicians, its business community and its foreign investors, nothing concrete has been resolved. Thailand remains a nation divided. Its beloved 81-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is in decline and had to unexpectedly cancel his annual birthday speech last Thursday due to illness. King Bhumibol had never previously missed his birthday address, and his absence dashed hopes that he would use the occasion to help resolve the crisis. Instead, political extremism is now mounting, and a frightening new phrase has slipped into the political lexicon: civil war.

Most analysts acknowledge that a civil conflict in the strict military sense—with rival armies fighting over territory and national control—is unlikely. Yet a uniquely Thai version, featuring extreme political violence and dividing the nation into rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, north vs. south and pro- vs. antiglobalization, has already begun to play out. Its salient aspects include a winner-take-all political culture, a rising authoritarian bent among the country's traditional elite and the erosion of democratic institutions. "Who will fight? All of the above," warns Sunai Phasuk, Thailand representative for Human Rights Watch. "It will be both a horizontal and vertical conflict, like a football game that goes very nasty and eventually the crowd jumps in."

That football match reached fever pitch last week when, for the second time in three months, Thailand's constitutional court toppled a democratically elected government. A nine-judge panel removed Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from office, dissolved three political parties central to his coalition and banned a handful of top officials for allegedly permitting fraud during the December 2007 election. The ruling came just three months after the same court ousted then Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for briefly hosting a televised cooking show while in office (which violated a no-moonlighting rule he was unaware of). The latest decision was an attempt to strike out at "dishonest political parties [that] undermine Thailand's democratic system," said Court President Chat Chalavorn. Critics called the decision a "judicial coup."

The new verdict was widely anticipated, partly because Thailand's judiciary is increasingly seen as a tool of an old ruling troika comprised of the military, the monarchy and the Bangkok-based national bureaucracy. Since democracy was restored last year, the judiciary has flagged the government for even the tiniest infractions while refusing to rein in an antigovernment pressure group calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy as it sought to impose mob rule. In August, the PAD's yellow-clad supporters occupied the prime minister's office, and late last month they shut down both of Bangkok's civilian airports. Yet the judiciary did nothing. It is also legally proscribed from bringing criminal charges against any participant in the 2006 coup that ousted populist firebrand Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says Thai politics have polarized to such an extreme that even the king—who intervened to stop political violence in 1992—might be unable to broker a lasting truce this time. "That's not how Thailand works anymore," he argues. "Each side sees so little reason to compromise that any deal wouldn't last very long."

The roots of today's strife stretch back to 2000, when tycoon turned politico Thaksin engineered a sweeping election triumph by pledging to elevate the country's rural majority out of poverty. Once in office, he funded village-level development projects, offered nearly free health care and made Thailand's economy the envy of the region by delivering high growth and reducing the income gap. His economic model played well in the largely rural country and made Thailand an emerging-market star, yet Thaksin's populism, charisma and superior political skills also made him powerful enemies among Thailand's traditional power brokers: the military, Bangkok's political clans, the business elite and the monarchy. Those groups supported Thaksin's 2006 ouster "because the logical conclusion of his programs would be a transformation of Thailand's sociopolitical hierarchy [that] would threaten many, many people close to the top," says Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

More than two years later, the old elite is still struggling to exorcise Thaksin's ghost. The man himself now lives in exile in Dubai to avoid jail following his conviction this year on corruption charges. But he speaks frequently to supporters by video link and claims fealty from the coalition elected in a landslide in late 2007 led by remnants of his Thai Rak Thai Party. Now officially banned twice, it has again begun to reconstitute itself, this time as Puea Thai, and likely will maintain its sway over Parliament's powerful lower house. This resilience has broken a historical pattern whereby democratic movements crushed by Thailand's military stayed down. "The rural grassroots have been awakened," says Thitinan, "and they are not going back to sleep."

Unable to reassert authority over the hinterland, the old guard seems bent on retaking command through a platform it calls "new politics," which would roll back one-person, one-vote democracy. The PAD, which counts among its supporters retired military officers, opposition political parties and Bangkok's business community, and also enjoys cozy ties with elements of the monarchy, advocates the transformation of Parliament to one dominated by appointed lawmakers because, as PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told NEWSWEEK a few months ago, the rural masses "lack intelligence and wisdom" to vote responsibly. The group's guards carry guns, knives and explosives and have fought pitched battles with riot police. During the airport siege Sondhi incited his supporters to "shed your blood if that is necessary," telling them: "If you have to die, so be it."

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a foreign-policy specialist at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, says the PAD vision for Thailand is "scarily analogous" to the political system Burma's generals are constructing to perpetuate their own monopoly on power. Rural Thais resent it so viscerally that they're rallying around Thaksin's allies as a point of pride. Upcountry constituencies have steadfastly stuck to their guns by replacing banned lawmakers with loyal pro-Thaksin surrogates. As Banharn Silpa-Archa, leader of the newly dissolved Chart Thai Party, put it last week: "If a husband is banned, his wife or offspring will replace him."

If that pattern holds, Thailand's Parliament will reconvene next week and, under a coalition led by Puea Thai, select the next prime minister from within its ranks. If that happens and "Thaksin's puppet government returns," PAD leader Sondhi has threatened to go back onto the streets and reoccupy airports. The court could still block this by appointing a "national unity" government in defiance of the Constitution, which makes no provision for such a move. This would turn back the clock to when the military imposed martial law back in 2006. But this time around, the pro-Thaksin camp has readied a pressure group of its own, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, which has vowed to take up arms to defend the ruling coalition. Popularly known as the "red shirts," the UDD's rank and file is every bit as thuggish as the PAD's yellow-clad toughs.

The nightmare scenario has color-coded hooligans fighting in the streets even as the monarchy enters its own transition. As Thitinan writes in the Journal of Democracy's current issue: "The setting sun of the King's long reign is the background against which the battle of attrition for Thailand's soul is taking place." That contest, he argues, pits "opposing webs of partisans and vested interests both for and against what Thaksin has done to Thailand." His fear: "What happens after the current king leaves the scene could be the most wrenching crisis yet." Observers are following events closely. "This is not civil war in the way we talk about civil war," says a foreign diplomat in Bangkok. "They're talking about mass unrest, but whether it will happen or not is yet to be determined." The only certainty, it seems, is uncertainty.