The red shirts and the yellow shirts are back on the streets of Bangkok, protesting a controversial new political amnesty bill and casting a pall of uncertainty over Thailand’s future. Thomas Fuller reports for the New York Times:
In a country that has become less and less governable amid a grinding and bitter political rivalry, protesters surrounded the Interior Ministry Tuesday and threatened to cut off power to the Agriculture, Tourism and Transport ministries. This follows the raid and occupation of the Foreign and Finance ministries on Monday.
As is often the case in Thailand, this is a complicated situation and the press reports tend to be garbled. But the basic situation seems to be this:Thai society is divided between several groups. The largest is composed of farmers, often poor, in the northeast and elsewhere in Thailand. They are ethnically Thai, strongly nationalist, and suspicious of the fancy merchants and lawyers in the big city.The well educated urban and professional middle class in Bangkok and to a lesser degree elsewhere is a mix of successful Thais and the descendants of Chinese migrants who moved to Thailand in the 19th and 20th century. Like many ethnic minorities in many countries, they have a sometimes complicated relationship with the majority and with the authorities. But because the Sino-Thais are largely urban and mercantile, populism in Thailand often takes the form of a majority protest against what is sometimes perceived as a grasping, commercial minority.Historically, power in Thailand has been wielded by a group of interests clustered around the Palace: the army’s high command, large industrialists (both ethnically Thai and Sino-Thai), powerful aristocratic families with large landholdings and so on. This group is unusually successful by historical standards: the Thais were one of a handful of peoples in the developing world to keep their independence during the colonial era. They survived the Japanese occupation in World War Two, the communist surge in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, and the rapid industrialization and modernization of recent decades. It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the determination and the skill of Thailand’s traditional leadership class.Since World War Two, the King of Thailand has played a major role in holding Thai society together. On the one hand he has been able, in times of crisis, to resolve power struggles among the elite. On the other, the combination of his religious prestige, dynastic mystique and personal popularity has served to legitimate the status quo. Despite communist insurgencies and populist resentment, the King’s hold on popular loyalty among poor and less educated Thais has been a key factor in Thailand’s stability.But two things have happened in Thailand that challenge the status quo. The first is that with the passing of time, the King is inevitably and inexorably moving toward the close of his day. King Bhumipol was born in 1927 and has been on the throne since 1946. (Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, is a newbie; she only came to the throne in 1952.) In recent years the King has made few public appearances and as he moves toward his 90th year it is not to be expected that he will be as active a political figure as he was in the past.The second is that a Sino-Thai businessman, Thaksin Shinawatra, has done what most would have thought impossible: he has developed a popularity among the ethnic Thai masses that rivals the popularity of the royal house and he has developed a political base that challenges the old world of elite politics. Through a populist economic program that distributed billions in health and social spending to people in villages and farms across the country, he created and bound together a political movement that looks to him to redress the injustices that many poor Thais experience in their daily lives and to bring better living standards to the masses.Thaksin frightens many people close to the Palace because of his national popularity. His alliance with the rural masses frightens the urban middle class. Business rivals fear that he will use his immense wealth and political power to entrench himself as not only the leader but the master of Thailand. Good government and civil society liberals fear him and his allies in part because they identify his rural power base with corruption and an arbitrary form of government and in part because they are suspicious of his ambitions. Certainly Thaksin has more power than any non-royal Thai politician or businessman has had in a very long time.Thaksin himself has been in exile since he was convicted on corruption charges. But his sister was elected prime minister with a substantial majority in his place, and it is widely believed that he continues to influence government policy through his links to his sister and the rest of his party. Worse, perhaps, from the standpoint of his rivals and critics, he appears to have developed a strong relationship with the heir to the throne. Anti-Thaksin forces are worried that they may soon face a man who has the power of mass political support and a majority in Parliament, vast wealth, and the mystique that comes with royal support.The demonstrations taking place in Thailand today have these events as their background. The “yellow shirts” support the alliance of the traditional power centers in Thai society with the urban middle class and the non-Thaksin supporting business interests of the country. The “red shirts” represent the populist alliance that wants his return. One way to measure the problems facing anti-Thaksin forces: yellow is the color associated with the Thai monarchy and it is under the banner of loyalty to the King that his opponents march. What happens to this coalition if Thailand someday has a King who backs Thaksin?Obscure political squabbles in a faraway land might seem of little interest to American readers. But the Game of Thrones in Asia is heating up, and Thailand has a major role to play. Under King Bhumipol, Thailand has been a firmly pro-US country. It supported the US during and after the Vietnam War. It continues to assist the United States in many ways. Thailand has always had an important role to play in Burma, and with that country moving through deep changes, Thailand is likely to become more important still.As Thailand edges uneasily toward a new political era, Americans and others will be watching to see whether political change at home implies change in its foreign policy. In a worse-case scenario, China and the United States might find themselves supporting different Thai political factions as they struggle for power. This is one of the ways that the Game of Thrones could turn ugly. Thais have managed their affairs effectively enough for many generations to preserve the country’s independence and unity; we must hope that once again Thailand will rise to the challenge.[Thai yellow shirts protesting, photo courtesy of Getty Images.]