Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

The Search for a New Consensus

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


Full Text

BANGKOK-When the U.S. Marines and Royal Thai Air Force bands played the Thai national anthem alongside the Star Spangled Banner during the Independence Day reception at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok this past July, they unwittingly waltzed into Thailand's protracted political crisis. A host of local dignitaries on the scene were aghast that the Thai royal anthem, the customary tune of national days hosted by the various embassies in Bangkok, had been replaced by its nation-state equivalent. Letters of objection and reprimand to the editor of The Bangkok Post ensued. The U.S. embassy issued no apology for its gaffe. The pro-royal anthem advocates continued to vent their dissatisfaction in posh social cocktails and dinners. It became a storm in a teacup that typified Thailand's ongoing divisions and polarization.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the genesis of the color-coded crisis which has locked Thailand's largely urban conservative, royalist "yellow" shirts and its rural-driven "red" columns into a confrontation began long before fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rode a populist wave to power in January 2001. For much of Thailand's long economic boom during the preceding two decades, the accumulation of wealth took place mostly in the Bangkok metropolitan area, a deprivation to the rural grass roots as much as a boon to the burgeoning urban middle class. While rural folks had more than enough to eat in the agriculturally endowed backwaters, economic opportunities and upward mobility were harder to come by, owing to a shoddy education system and a docile state-run media that fed them soap operas and official messages. For nobody to become somebody, all roads led to Bangkok and its prestigious prep schools and universities. The farms became increasingly alienated. Thaksin saw this urban-rural opening, and shrewdly seized it, thereby upending the elite consensus that had hitherto prevailed in Thailand.

That elite consensus, for the second half of the 20th century, rested on the innerworkings of the military, monarchy and bureaucracy. Military rule and putsches from factional infighting among generals held sway until the early 1970s, when university students underpinning a budding civil society overthrew a military dictatorship and created the basis for a democratic polity. Parliament, political parties, and politicians then came and went alternately via several military coups, which invariably suppressed the maturation of democratic institutions. The rural-urban divide wedded the grass roots to upcountry patronage networks and vote-buying, while elected politicians reaped their rewards through corruption and graft in Bangkok. In turn, the men in green uniform stepped in from time to time-once every four years, on average, since constitutional rule was introduced in 1932-ostensibly to suppress corruption, but retarding democratic rule in the process.

All this changed in 1997, when Thailand promulgated a reform-oriented constitution which promoted transparency, accountability, stability and effectiveness of government. Its logical but flawed outcome was the triumph of Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party, which became the first to complete a full term and be re-elected in 2005 by a landslide. Its pro-grassroots populism featured income redistribution, affordable health care, micro-credit schemes, and a dazzling array of policy innovation that ushered Thailand into 21st-century globalization. The direct connection established by Thaksin and his party to the electorate bypassed and threatened the established trinity of institutions that had called the ultimate shots in Thailand.

But Thaksin and his cronies inevitably handed the Establishment an opportunity to strike back when they abused power and converted it into personal profit through conflicts of interest that benefited their businesses. A billionaire telecommunications tycoon in power, Thaksin presided over the trebling of his assets in the stock market. He also engineered a lethal drug-suppression campaign that claimed some 2,275 lives, many through extrajudicial killings. His sins of authority, power and corruption are voluminous, and became the basis of the rise of his yellow-shirted opponents under the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). As push came to shove, and a limited street protest expanded into a nationwide anti-Thaksin coalition, the generals staged Thailand's 18th putsch in September 2006. It was followed by a lackluster interim government and a military-supported charter. Elections were held in December 2007 where Thaksin's second-generation People's Power Party (PPP) still won handily.

The PAD then spent last year demonstrating in the streets of the capital against Thaksin's two successive governments, highlighted by the illegal occupation of Government House and Bangkok's two airports. The judiciary, an assertive and powerful organ of the bureaucracy, abruptly dissolved the ruling PPP just hours before national celebrations of the King's 81st birthday. Backed by the PAD and the army, the opposition Democrat Party gobbled up enough MPs to form a new coalition government. In turn, the pro-Thaksin red shirts took to the streets against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, building up to the riots and mayhem in April 2009 that disrupted Thailand's hosting of the East Asia Summit in Pattaya.

A relative lull has set in since, but the rumblings of the reds can still be felt. The pro-Thaksin forces have organized a signature campaign of more than one million Thais to petition the King for a royal pardon. Thaksin's rural appeal, especially in the north and populous northeast, has proven resilient. Puea Thai, the PPP's successor, scored thumping by-election victories in two northeast constituencies last June. When Thaksin turned 60 in exile, celebrations in his homeland were held in a host of provinces, attended by throngs of red shirts.

After more than three years, Thailand's crisis has become a knotty saga. Prime Minister Abhisit's reform and reconciliation pledges made in the wake of the April riots have had little tangible effect. The reds remain enraged by their sense of social injustice, whereas the pro-Establishment yellows have hunkered down for a battle of attrition. But the fault lines also have gradually shifted-from a pro- and anti-Thaksin fight for Thailand's soul to a pro- and anti-monarchy struggle for Thailand's future.

The entrenched Establishment forces are insecure and fearful of what will happen after the King passes from the scene. Lèse-majesté cases involving alleged insults to the immediate royal family are on the rise. Thousands of websites challenging Establishment interests and deploring post-coup machinations have been blocked. The reds, meanwhile, face their own conundrum. Many deplore Thaksin's corruption, but have no choice but to embrace him as a protest symbol in the post-coup status quo. As for the yellows, they find Thaksin's misrule intolerable, but not all of them are fanatical royalists. The result has been a national political stalemate, the ultimate denouement of which will only take place after the issue of succession comes to a head.

In the meantime, a synthesis of sorts is taking place. The reds and yellows are increasingly overlapping. The former cannot accept the coup and the dominance of the green uniforms, and see at least some of Thaksin's political legacy as the way forward for Thailand. The latter cannot stand Thaksin, but recognize that a new Thailand will emerge after the King's 62-year-old reign comes to an end. Clearly, a new consensus based on mutual recognition and accommodation is imperative.

A glimpse of this logical synthesis recently came from an unlikely source. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Bangkok in July to attend the 16th ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket, she donned a smart suit in complete, uncharacteristic orange. It was a subtle statement of reconciliation and goodwill that the divided Thais might soon find a way to embrace.