The news from Thailand is bad. The Associated Press spoke of Bangkok “in flames“; 18 provincial capitals and have been placed under curfew and government buildings have been attacked in the cities of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen. An estimated 65 people have been killed in the last two months of on-again, off-again violence and a political solution seems no closer today than it did at the start of the latest round of “Red Shirt” protests.This is not, yet, a worst case scenario. Potentially, violence in Thailand could spread throughout the country and the army could split. China and the United States could back different sides in what could spiral into a serious civil conflict. Violence in Thailand could disrupt and destabilize life in neighboring countries, especially Cambodia and northern Malaysia. The death of the current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, would make matters worse as the monarchy, the most important stabilizing institution in modern Thailand, could itself be paralyzed or divided in the midst of the worst national crisis since the Japanese invasion in World War Two.
But if the worst is not yet with us, the outlook is grim. What we are seeing in Thailand is not just a hiccup, a momentary spasm of protest. It is the sign of a deep revolution in the nature of Thai society which the country’s political and legal systems cannot manage. Thailand will not settle down for some time, and when (and if) it does, the country will have made major changes.The old Thai system was flexible and subtle, and thanks to their gifts for compromise and evasion, and to the deep loyalty which the Thai people felt toward their kings, Thailand was the only Asian country except Japan to avoid the fate of European conquest in the colonial era. “Give the foreigner lots of face, and send him away happy,” is how one Thai described the country’s traditional approach to outside powers; the key phrase was “send him away.” Thais were and are fiercely independent and a sense of national solidarity remains a key to understanding where Thailand is and where it is going.Thailand has a parliament, a prime minister, and one of the world’s most complex constitutions; the Thai state, however, is not a modern bureaucratic and institutional state. To a very large extent, it is a latter day version of the traditional Thai way of doing things. Politics is more about personal loyalties, blood relations and factions among the country’s elite than about ideologies or mass politics. Under the rule of the current king, justly considered a master of Thai politics and a man who has had the welfare of the country as he understands it close to his heart through decades of public service, the monarchy acted as the ultimate arbiter in the feuds and rivalries of the elites. Now favoring this faction and now the other, imposing limits on the winners and safeguarding the interests of losing factions, the king kept the system in balance. Additionally, his religious and personal prestige legitimized the system as a whole in the eyes of the rural peasants. The king and queen have been associated with the country’s high profile efforts to enhance rural standards of living and bring development to the countryside since the current king came to the throne in the aftermath of World War Two.The basic problem in Thailand today is that this elegant and delicately balanced system can no longer work. Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial and charismatic billionaire who is still seen as the leader of the Red Shirts fighting the government, outflanked his elite rivals by building his own independent bond with the rural masses. For the first time, a Thai public figure other than the king established nation-wide ties of patronage and loyalty with the farmers and rural people as a whole. Thaksin introduced basic health care and micro-credit programs to villages across the country, demonstrating the practical superiority of modern mass politics and state initiatives over old style feudal benevolence when it came to meeting the needs of the people. In that sense, Thaksin was functioning in Thai politics a bit like FDR did in the United States; he built a strong base of support among the poor who saw him as their savior and protector against entrenched elites, and as someone through whom they could exercise more direct influence over government policy. A wave of rural support made Thaksin the strongest political figure in the history of modern Thailand; with an absolute majority in parliament, his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party was, before it was banned in 2007, a new and disturbing force in the delicate world of Thai elite politics. (Of course, he was also functioning a bit like Huey Long, who reportedly once told a group of voters “If you’re not getting something for nothing, you’re not getting your fair share.”)Worse, from the standpoint of the traditional elites, Thaksin is an extremely successful businessman who, whatever the facts behind the allegations of corruption against him, well understands the ways in which political and economic power can buttress and support one another. As the Berlosconi of Thailand, Thaksin looks to his enemies like a dictator in the making.Add to that the question of monarchical succession. The untested Crown Prince lacks his father’s popularity and experience. Some people in Thailand seemed to fear that the Crown Prince was ready to lean on Thaksin for advice and support, making Thaksin the unrivaled master of Thai politics, business and even the monarchy itself.For all their horror at the prospect of rule by Thaksin, the old elites must face another painful truth: they cannot go on in the old way, Thaksin or not. Thailand is no longer willing to be ruled by elite factions in Bangkok; political arrangements that satisfy the elites cannot be made to stick in the country at large. The royal succession will underline the change; if even the revered King Bhumipol was unable to settle Thailand’s current round of political unrest, how can his successor manage the country in the old way?There is another element in the Thai mix that foreign observers miss: ethnicity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Thailand, like many of its neighbors, received a large migration from China. Today ‘Sino-Thais’ account for something like ten to fifteen percent of the total population, and a much higher proportion of the urban population, especially in Bangkok. The royal family played an important role in helping these outsiders win greater acceptance from a sometimes xenophobic and resentful Thai public at large. The descendants of Chinese immigrants are heavily represented among the Bangkok intellectual, professional and economic elite. The press coverage has been rather silent on this score, but one would guess many more “Yellow Shirts“, the anti-Thaksin demonstrators, are Sino-Thais than the “Red Shirts.” As in many countries where populist movements rooted in the peasant majorities were hostile to ‘alien’ minorities in the urban economy, so in Thailand. Politics in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have all been affected, sometimes profoundly, by ethnic politics; Thailand seems to be experiencing some of this in a characteristically indirect way. Rural support for Thaksin and suspicion of Bangkok elites reflects some powerful ethnic resentments that could become all the more explosive as the crisis continues.What Thailand is going through is something much deeper than a conflict between two parties. This is not a dispute over offices or policy, but a struggle to define the Thai people and the Thai state.Whoever prevails in this phase of the struggle will have a hard time going forward. Neither the old system nor Thaksin’s government were ever able to build the kind of functioning national institutions that a rapidly developing country like Thailand needs. Once on a visit to Khon Kaen province in northeastern Thailand (a hotbed of Red Shirt activism today), I met a group of farmers whose traditional livelihoods were damaged when pollution from a nearby paper mill reduced water quality and fish catches in a local river.What was clear is that neither the administrative nor the judicial officers of the government had the kind of authority and prestige that could settle the dispute between farmers and mill owners with any legitimacy. The farmers were convinced (for all I know correctly) that bribes were paid to the officials involved. The government at that point (pre-Thaksin) had lost the confidence of the local people.A rapidly developing country generates huge numbers of disputes like this. Land claims, pollution, zoning, power supply: governments have to become more competent and more honest as economies grow and life becomes more complex. In Thailand, many of the Red Shirt protesters now seem to feel that they live in a country where the government has broken down, and in which wealthy elites can and do manage everything just as they like, from naming the prime minister down to adjudicating village disputes.The old Thai people — uneducated, socialized into a hierarchical culture based on deference and stressing harmony — may not have liked the inequality of Thai life, but they (mostly) accepted their fate. That is changing as more Thais are educated, as they move to the city, and as they are exposed to all the cultural and political influences of an industrial society that is wired into global culture and information networks.The early stirrings of mass democracy are often not very accomplished. I have written about Napoleon III as the kind of figure who is able to use democratic methods like universal suffrage to impose an illiberal political system. There are many places around the world where movements of national political awakening have led away from democracy as well as from ethnic and religious toleration.The Yellow Shirts who worry that Red Shirt rule could make Thailand more corrupt and even authoritarian without solving the country’s urgent problems have a point. So to do the Red Shirts, who argue that the Yellow Shirts are more interested in their own privileges than in the modernization of the country as a whole.I am not Thai, so it is not my role to choose sides. The questions Thais are grappling with today are the kinds of questions that each people needs to work through in its own way; struggling over these issues is part of the process of political education that, when things work well, can ultimately give a mass electorate the wisdom and judgment needed to elect good leaders. Making mistakes is part of the educational process; there is no easy way for a people to learn the art of self-government.While watching Thailand, it’s worth thinking about how many other countries are going through the rapid changes churcning their way through Thai life. From China through India and Bangla Desh, East, South and Southeast Asian countries face many of the pressures now ripping at Thailand’s social fabric.We outsiders will be profoundly affected by what the Asian countries do as they encounter the challenges of Thailand. But Asia will change and change profoundly as urbanization, industrialization and rising expectations and levels of education challenge the cultural values and political structures of all the big Asian countries. In some places, change will come more easily than in Thailand; in others, the violence and the cost of transition will likely be far greater than anything we now see.For now, watch Thailand. What is happening there is in one sense unique and very Thai; in another it is a glimpse into Asia’s future that we will all do well to study.