The Thai Crisis Is Set To Get Ugly


It may look like a typically Bangkok-style crisis, but the current political turmoil in Thailand is part of a much wider phenomenon, as many developing countries struggle to contain the conflicts that are growing out of rising inequality.

As was explained in earlier this week, the situation in Thailand has become a battle between two main political groups. The first is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a selection of Thai groups that could be said to come from the relatively wealthy and educated urban population (government officials, military, middle class, royalty).

The second is the People Power Party (PPP), a successor to the Thai Rak Thai political party that Thaksin Shinawatra created to serve rural communities, a class of people who had hitherto missed out on the benefits of the economic boom from the 1980s to the early 1990s.

The PAD represents the values of Thailand’s traditional elites, who have been able to take their position of privilege for granted regardless of the times. However, by the 2001 election, the PPP, supported by a substantial and previously disenfranchised rural majority, had ascended to a controlling position within Thai politics, fundamentally changing the basis of power.

The winning formula for the PPP was its "Thaksinomics", a combination of liberalisation, deregulation (such as the Australia-Thailand Free Trade Agreement in 2005) and targeted benefits for rural communities, such as cheap health care, rural development programs and improved educational facilities. After many years spent without a voice, rural people were reintegrated and engaged in Thai politics.

This redistribution or decentralisation of power was underreported by those analysts and observers keen to point to the other more dramatic aspects of Thaksin’s prime ministerial career. The media made much more of the 2003 war on drugs that led to thousands of deaths; the Government’s lying about SARS; the corruption indictments; and the selling of Shin Corp, Thailand’s biggest telephone company to Singtel without paying tax on the transaction.

Other elements attending the decentralisation of power added extra weight to the feeling that Thailand had fundamentally changed. These factors included the rationalisation and overt politicisation of the public service, which eroded national institutions and further antagonised traditional Thai society, the same social sector that had held the reigns of power for the entire history of modern Thailand.

Add to this antipathy the perception common among many of those who would eventually become the basis of the PAD that Thaksin had designs on abolishing the monarchy. A combustible mix was created that is still burning now.

The lines between the two are clear and unlikely to be resolved without violence. Civil war is a very real danger.

When educated elites in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) suggest the PPP is undemocratic, they base their case on a number of factors. The PAD argue that the rural supporters of the PPP are uneducated and therefore should not be trusted to run the country. Due to their poor education and stupidity (or so the argument goes) the country is run essentially by corrupt and destabilising crooks who can easily bribe the majority of the population with a few handouts, and they therefore should not have the right to choose the government.

The fact that PPP rural supporters became activist democrats because they had been left behind by the urban elite, in terms of services like health and education, is conveniently ignored. The PPP treat the situation of the poor as the poor’s own fault, and argue that they should leave politics to those who have shepherded Thailand through modern times.

As a result, notions of limited suffrage espoused by PAD luminaries have become increasingly common. The fact that privileged parts of Thailand’s society would seek to disenfranchise the rest after just five years of moderately refocused leadership is a cause of grave concern.

Can a domestic conflict be avoided? A lot of the speculation about a possible resolution over the past six months has centred around King Bhumibol, as it often does when Thai politics reaches a crisis.

Yet this time around the role he has played has been subdued, to say the least. The PAD has wrapped itself in the royal colour yellow, but of the royal couple only the Queen has publicly supported the party. Anybody who viewed the recent funeral of the King’s Sister (which was broadcast on nearly every Thai Cable TV channel) would have seen a very sick man, walking stiffly with four soldiers watching his every step.

The health of the King has a lot of bearing on the chances for a royal compromise between the two forces. In that situation, which of the parties he would favour and by how much is uncertain, as the King has identified both with rural communities and traditional supporters in the military and urban elites.

If, on the other hand, the King is unable to act as a mediator, the chances of avoiding open violence diminish, as the Crown Prince does not enjoy the same widespread public approval.

Even more threatening is the potential for conflict to spread from Thailand to surrounding countries. One trigger for regional destabilisation already exists in Thailand’s dispute with Cambodia over ownership of the Preah Vihear temple complex.

It should be remembered that the PAD initially gained traction in the Thai polity by exploiting the PPP’s support of Cambodia’s application for UNESCO world heritage listing of the temple.

Nationalist cries that Thaksin cronies had sacrificed Thai territory for expediency put the PPP on the defensive, a position it is still in now. If this domestic political fracture were to be further exploited it could serve to widen the currently limited border conflict between the countries.

The chances of the PAD causing a breakdown in Thai civil society are very real, but the possible reaction from rural communities is also potentially explosive. If anything, the Thaksin years from 2001 to 2006 opened their eyes to a long-standing problem, and politicised a large section of the population.

Decisions made by the urban elite had fostered the development of Bangkok, a modern industrial complex in Thailand and a huge tourist industry, but it came at the relative expense of the traditional rice-based economy that the majority of the country still relied on. This has obviously benefited a few at the expense of the majority.

But the reaction in Thailand is perhaps the most extreme and most clear-cut example of a much wider phenomena. It is precisely this kind of uneven development, talked about in recent years by the UNDP and World Bank, which threatens the political stability of most third world countries, particularly around Southeast Asia.

The same situation can be found in Cambodia and to a lesser extent Vietnam.

A 2007 report by the World Bank found growing levels of inequality in Cambodia, with the richest section of the community increasing their consumption by 45 per cent between 1994 and 2004 while the poorest section only increased their consumption by 8 per cent.

Hence for many, the wealth created from fast growing economy is accruing to those at the upper levels of society and largely bypassing the lower levels of the community.

The disconnection between the economic poles leads to increasing feelings of discontent — the feeling that the Asian miracle has passed them by. Now even their right to vote is being challenged.

It is unlikely that they will let it go quietly.

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