Thailand’s Political Conflict – A Jasmine Revolution? by Christian Stampe Jensen

11. Apr 2011

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the political unrest that it has sparked in neighbouring countries throughout the Middle East has raised the question how these events influence popular uprisings and struggles for democracy in other parts of the world. In Thailand, political unrest and conflict between ‘Red Shirts’ and ‘Yellow Shirts’ have been recurrent events following the September 2006 coup that ousted the popular and democratically elected Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thai”, TRT) government of former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. From March to May 2010, the ‘Red Shirt’ opposition movement protested against the coup and the Aphisit government which led to violent clashes in downtown Bangkok. While the ‘Red Shirts’ were unsuccessful in their struggle to bring down the government, the recent events in the Middle East may serve as inspiration for the ‘Red Shirt’ movement to continue the struggle and although the Thai case on a number of accounts is different from the situation in the Middle Eastern countries, it is possible that future developments may turn the situation in Thailand into a similar scenario.

The ‘Yellow Shirts’ (or süa lüang in Thai) is a social movement named People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporting the monarchy, the present pro-royalist government led by Democrat Party leader, Aphisit Vejjajiva, and the present political regime. The ‘Red Shirt’ (süa daeng in Thai) movement including the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the smaller Daeng Sayam (“Red Siam”) factions are in opposition to both the government and the regime and support the ‘pro-Red’ Phak Phüa Thai (“Thai People’s Party”) opposition party – a successor party to Thaksin’s popular TRT party. The PAD consists mainly of middle class ‘Bangkokians’ and pro-royalist elite groups. The ‘Red Shirts’ are predominantly farmers and workers from the North and the North-eastern Isaan region, a region culturally distinct from Central Thailand and the metropolitan culture of Bangkok. Many migrant workers from this region working in Bangkok also support the ‘Red Shirts’.

The roots of the political conflict in Thailand can be traced back to the 1997 economic crisis and its impact on Thai society. The Democrat government at the time failed to deal with the crisis and this in turn provided a momentum for the TRT party to turn crisis sentiment into electoral support within the framework of the recently promulgated 1997 “people’s” constitution. Opposing the Democrat’s decision to follow the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), the TRT presented itself as a party saving the nation’s independence from ‘neo-colonisation’ by these Western institutions. By offering a policy programme including healthcare and village loans to those worst affected by the crisis – a program that critics labelled as “populist” owing to its appeal to the rural electorate – the party secured two electoral victories in 2001 and 2005. The TRT government was the first in Thai political history to serve a full term and enjoy re-election to serve a second term. It was also the first government to respond to its constituency and implement the policies it had promised prior to election. Thaksin’s charismatic personality and ability to steer the country out of the economic crisis in turn boosted the image of the TRT government as the party most suitable to lead Thailand into the new millennium.

By 2006, however, the popularly elected government had turned increasingly authoritarian. Declaring ‘war on drugs’ the eradication program resulted in more than 3.000 extra-judicial killings. Human rights abuse were also committed in the massacres at Tak Bai and Krue Sa mosque where Thai Muslims were brutally killed for protesting against government policies prohibiting teaching the local language yawi. Journalists criticising the government were harassed and intimidated. But it was the sale of Thaksin’s telecommunications company, Shin Corp – a company built on generous government concessions – to Singaporean Temasek that ignited strong opposition to Thaksin and the TRT government. Avoiding taxation on the profits made from the sale by means of legislation that had recently been passed, the Shin Corp sale not only proved Thaksin to be corrupt, the sale also contradicted the nationalist rhetoric and policies of economic nationalism that was the basis of Thaksin and the TRT’s popular appeal.

In opposition to Thaksin and the TRT, Sondhi Limthongkul, a media-mogul and former ally of Thaksin, formed the PAD and staged anti-government protests, accusing Thaksin of corruption and treason. Further, the PAD protested against Thaksin’s purported disrespect for the monarch and his interference with the ‘royal prerogative’ of appointments and promotions in the military. Thaksin’s refusal to respond to the PAD’s demands to dissolve the TRT government led the PAD to ask for a ‘royal intervention’ to solve the political crisis that the king according to Article 7 of the 1997 constitution was legally entitled to. The king, however, refused and urged the conflicting parties to find a solution. On 19 September, 2006, the military ousted Thaksin in a “bloodless” coup while he was attending a UN meeting in New York. The TRT government was replaced by a military interim government including members of the coup group. The 1997 constitution that had brought the TRT government to power was scrapped and later replaced by the 2007 constitution.

The coup did not solve the political crisis. Disaffected Thaksin supporters and TRT voters formed the ‘Red Shirt’ opposition movement, protesting against the military government and its failure to recognise the electoral mandate they had given to Thaksin. In response to the Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the TRT party, a new political party, the Phak Phalang Prachachon (“People’s power Party”, PPP) was formed and ran for election. The PPP won and formed government, putting pro-Thaksin politicians back in office. The PAD staged demonstrations in protests. When the Constitutional Court later dissolved the PPP, it led to violent confrontations between the ‘Red Shirts’ and the PAD. In late 2008, the Democrat Party managed to form a coalition government with support from minor parties “defecting” from the ‘pro-Red Shirt’ side. The incident deepened the political crisis.

The March-May protests in 2010 were the largest popular uprising in Thai political history since the 1992 demonstrations against the military coup of General Suchinda. Although demanding the dissolution of the Aphisit government, the political discourse of class struggle voiced by the ‘Red Shirt’ leaders suggested that the regime and the socio-political order needed to be reformed. The ‘Red Shirts’ were initially promised an election in November 2010, but the escalation of the conflict and the eruption of violent confrontations in turn provided the government with justification for the bloody crack-down of the remaining protesters that had fortified in down-town Bangkok on 19 May. The promise of an election in November was later withdrawn. Many ‘Red Shirt’ leaders were subsequently imprisoned under the Terrorist Act. Martial law and state-of-emergency decrees were enacted to paralyze opposition. The law protecting the monarchy from insults, the lèse-majesté, was used to legally prosecute ‘Red Shirt’ leaders considered to have anti-royalist and republican inclinations.

The first thing that is noteworthy in the Thai context is the ideological nature of the conflict reflected in the struggle to define the nature of the country’s political system. The fact that both political movements use ‘democracy’ in their names suggests that the conflict is ideological and revolves around the question how to define its meaning and application in the Thai context. The PAD support a ‘Royal Democracy’ where the reigning monarch, Bhumipol Adulyadej, is considered the moral authority of Thai society – a political system that in the 2007 constitution is referred to as a “Democratic Regime of Government with the King as Head of State”. This political ideology or political philosophy has been in the making for the past fifty years of Bhumipol’s reign and is presented as reflecting the ‘traditional’ cultural values of Thai society and appropriate to the socio-political order. In turn, the images of Bhumipol as a modern thammaracha (“God King”) and the “Father of all Thais” have been constructed on the king’s purported self-sacrifice and dedication to his people, based on his commitment to ‘royal projects’ promoting agricultural developments. The king’s moral authority has also been “confirmed” by royal interventions in the political process in the past to stop bloodshed among conflicting parties, most notably in 1973 and 1992. The rise of ‘money politics’ – the use of corruption and vote-buying to control the electoral and parliamentary systems manipulated by elite groups to lay claim to state power in turn has provided the king with the duty of “overseeing” the political process. Official royalist historiography has successfully facilitated the (re)interpretation of the past and the “failures” of the democratic system to promote the image of Bhumipol as a “democratic king”. This in turn has elevated the monarchy to become the most important political institution in the country today. The corruption and ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ of the TRT government thus provided the justification for the ‘royally endorsed’ 2006 coup that successfully “saved” Thailand’s democracy and protected the institution of monarchy.

The Red Shirts, however, support a political system based on the principles of ‘liberal democracy’. After the dissolution of the TRT and PPP parties and the removal of elected politicians following the 2006 coup, the ‘democratic image’ of both the Aphisit-government and the regime is fading and its commitment to democracy questionable. The use of ‘democracy’ in the political discourse of the ‘Red Shirt’ leaders has therefore become an effective channel for contesting the legitimacy of both the government and the political regime. The government and its supporters, however, fear and claim that it is a political instrument used by the ‘Red Shirts’ to bring Thaksin back to power. While Thaksin has been in exile since the 2006 coup, he is assisting the ‘Red Shirts’ with moral and financial support. Thaksin has therefore been considered to fund the mass mobilisation of ‘Red Shirts’ from the countryside to Bangkok during the March-May protests. The image of the ‘Red Shirt’ movement as “ignorant cows and buffalos” herded by Thaksin to fulfil his personal political ambitions used by pro-government/pro-royalist media to delegitimize the protest movement has turned the question of Thaksin’s role into a debated issue that has split the Daeng Sayam faction from the major UDD wing of the ‘Red Shirts’. They continue to discuss the role of Thaksin and the direction of the struggle for the future.

Besides the ideological dimension of the conflict and the conflicting interpretations of democracy the present political crisis is also a conflict between two power centres in Thai politics, the ‘old elite’ representing pro-royalist elite groups in the civilian and military bureaucracy, rich business families, and the royal family. The other centre, the ‘new elite’, constitutes Thaksin and his network in the police force, military, and business elite. The political crisis prior to the 2006 coup thus provided a momentum for the ‘traditional elite’ to eliminate the threat posed by the TRT government, Thaksin, and his expanding network. The coup in turn restored power to the ‘traditional’ power-holders and eliminated the threat to the ‘old regime’ posed by Thaksin’s strong electoral mandate.

The other thing that appears to separate the Thai case from those of the Middle East concerns the question of popular support. Whereas the revolutions in the Middle East enjoy strong popular support and appear to be genuine mass uprisings by the people united against the oppressive regimes of the power-holders, in Thailand the population is split into two colour-coded social movements. Both the PAD and the ‘Red Shirts’ represent significant proportions of the Thai electorate and therefore, while the government and the regime is contested by the ‘Red Shirt’ opposition, the support from the PAD still provide both government and regime with legitimacy.

As long as the present monarch remains widely respected and revered – even among the ‘Red Shirts’, despite attempts to present them as anti-royalists – it is unlikely that the important role of the monarchy in the legitimation of the present regime can be questioned. However, Bhumipol’s poor health condition and the inability of the prospective heir to the throne to sustain its role as a source of legitimation has turned the royal succession question into an issue of major concern for the ‘old elite’. Once the monarchy fails to provide legitimacy for the present regime, it will be difficult for the military to maintain its present influential role in Thai politics and another military coup may be impossible. The 2006 coup was therefore also a reaction to the problem of royal succession on behalf of the military. In the face of failing royal legitimacy new bases of legitimation of the regime must be found. The alternative is to maintain power by force. But as the lesson from the Middle East has shown this may provoke further mobilisation against the regime. Rule by force alone may cause factions within the military to “defect” while others may still support the existing regime. It is the prospect of the former that may eventually split the military into opposing camps, risking an escalation of the conflict into armed struggle. The important question is therefore whether the conflict can be resolved through political reform within the existing framework of the electoral and parliamentary systems.

The forthcoming election in July 2011 becomes a decisive moment with the potential to escalate the conflict, depending whether the present government and those in power will acknowledge the formation of a pro-‘Red Shirt’ coalition government including the Phüa Thai party in the event of an electoral victory. Surachai (leader of the Daeng Sayam faction) has recently commented that if the present government denies to respond to the demands of the ‘Red Shirt’ opposition, the situation “will end up as in the Middle East”.

The March-May protests in 2010 never turned into the ‘Spring Revolution’ that the ‘Red Shirt’ protesters and their leaders had hoped for. But depending on the outcome of the forthcoming election and how the question of royal succession is resolved, the revolutions in the Middle East may inspire to the formation of a broader revolutionary movement against the present regime that can pave the way for Thailand to have a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ of its own in the future.

Christian is affiliated MA Student at the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies (NIAS) currently writing his thesis on the political conflict and crisis in Thai society and its discursive presentation as a class struggle.

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