Thai Crisis: A Struggle for Democracy or a Struggle for Power? by Thomas Håkansson

12. Dec 2008

          The past week’s occupation of Thailand’s two biggest airports is the result of a quite complicated crisis in Thai society that has remained unsolved for at least three years, but that does probably have its roots as far back as 1932 and the abolition of absolute monarchy. It can seen be a crisis that stems from a struggle for power between two factions within Thai society, one faction represented by the traditional elite and the other faction the “new” elite of (a) popular politician(s).

Three years ago, big protests arose in Bangkok against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was accused of corruption, of disrespecting human rights and avoiding paying taxes. Thaksin had been criticised several times throughout his period as Prime Minister, which started with a landslide-election in 1999, but apparently the sale of Shin Corp. to a Singapore company in the beginning of 2006 was a trigger to more outspoken criticism and open protests. Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai policy and rhetoric have often been described as a neo-nationalistic; therefore the sell-out of a big pure Thai company to a non-Thai company was a shock to many Thai people. I have been told by Thai friends, that many lay Thai people were very well aware that Thaksin was corrupt and that he probably misused his position in politics to gain personal benefits, but that they quietly accepted this because he also did something in return by carrying out a policy that the rural and poor Thais benefited from.

After the sale of Shin Corp., the urban middleclass in Bangkok openly voiced their critiques and a protest movement took form in the streets of Bangkok. This protest movement was in part orchestrated by his personal rival Sonthi Limthongkul. The protest movement and the resulting unrest in Thai society ended for a while with the military coup on 19th September 2006. Thaksin’s party Thai Rak Thai was banned from politics and Thaksin himself faced trial for several cases of economic fraud. The military held power for about a year before a new constitution was drafted and new elections for parliament was held. The new government was never very popular, and the Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had to resign earlier this year because he illegally participated in a commercial cooking-programme on Thai television. The following Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is brother-in-law of Thaksin and member of People Power Party (PPP), which has been described by many observers as a re-shuffling of Thaksin’s banned Thai Rak Thai party. In addition to this, many Thais believed that Thaksin was still behind Somchai Wongsawat and the PPP, and therefore basically nothing had changed in Thai politics since 2006. Thus the protest movement with the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in front re-occurred. The culmination so far of the latest protest movements has been the occupation of Thailand’s two biggest airports and the banning of PPP, and Somchai Wongsawat has been prohibited from working in politics for the next five years. A new party called Phuea Thai is already being formed and is nothing more than the previous Thai Rak Thai party in a third disguise; thus so far the protest movements has not resulted in any real change. It is believed that the former Prime Minister Thaksin is still behind the scenes, and although he is still highly popular among the majority of Thai people he is also still highly unpopular among the urban middle class of Bangkok, thus resulting in yet unresolved tensions in Thai society.

It could be asked why no other politician has entered the scene in Thai politics in order to re-unite the now very factionalized society. The answer is simply that there is no person capable of doing that in contemporary Thai politics. Speculations have also arisen about when the Thai King will intervene in the locked situation to call for restoration of peace and for negotiations between the rival factions. Many expected that the King in his birthday speech, which he was supposed to give on t
he 4th of December this year, would comment on the crisis and offer a solution to the situation. But unfortunately the King was reported to be ill and therefore did not deliver the expected speech, which has never previously happened during his 61 year reign. The reason for the absence of the King in the present unrest could be that he has simply been weakened by age and poor health, and by the fact that Thaksin has become so highly popular among the majority of the population that an intervention from his side might have no important effect. The composition of the PAD is not completely clear, but has followers from different backgrounds and with various agendas. However, it is clear that the declared goal for the PAD is to support the monarchy of Thailand, to get a parliament of mostly appointed members and to give the monarchy more influence in the political process in Thailand. These goals have been agreed upon not out of admiration for Sonthi Limthongkul but because they agree that Thaksin and his politicians are so corrupt that they need to be opposed.

Thaksin is undoubtedly the most popular politician ever in Thai history and in addition to this also the richest. This makes Thaksin extremely powerful, and according to at least one academic this makes him a rival to the monarchy and the traditional elite in Thai society. This is basically because Thaksin pays attention to the little man in Thai society and, as already mentioned, he conducts a policy that supports the little man and has thus created him-self a patronage in Thai society. The role of supporting the little man of society has traditionally been the King’s so therefore it is tempting to conclude that Thaksin is seen as a threat to the Thai monarchy and traditional elite. Furthermore, the succession to the throne after the present King is yet another uncertainty in the present situation. The King is now 82 years old and in poor health. The Crown Prince is not popular at all among the population of Thailand and even has a reputation of being a playboy. Therefore it is not possible that he can take over the role of his father. Another possibility is to change the tradition of succession of the Thai throne so that it becomes possible for the Princess to become Queen. The Princess is popular among the Thai population and although she might not be as popular as her father, she would probably still be capable of uniting Thai society. But with a man as strong as Thaksin many people fear that Thailand would be turned into a republic when the King is no more, which is of course unacceptable to the traditional Bangkok elite. Therefore it is possible that the PAD’s main goal is not so much to gain a democratic administration of Thailand but more to regain power for the monarchy and the traditional elite of Bangkok.   



Further reading:


McCargo, Duncan 2005. “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand”. In: The Pacific Review. Volume 18, Number 4, December 2005, pp. 499-519.


Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Chris Baker 2004. Thaksin. The Business of Politics in Thailand. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.


Winichakul, Thongchai. “Toppling Democracy”. In: Journal of Contemporary Asia. Vol. 38, No. 1, February 2008, pp. 11-37.