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Thailand in Crisis - Background and Analysis (2 articles)

Thailand's Deep Divide by Walden Bello (January 27 in Foreign Policy in Focus) Thailand's Protests and the Global Economy by Layne Hartsell (February 4 in Foreign Policy in Focus)

Thai protesters in Bankgok call for the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra in December 2013. For some protesters, rallying cries against corruption have given way to broadsides against popular rule and democracy itself. , Photo: Where Is Your Toothbrush? / Flickr

Thailand's Deep Divide

By Walden Bello

January 27, 2014
Foreign Policy in Focus

With popular singers belting out Queen's "We are the Champions" and John Lennon's "Imagine," the enormous protests taking place against Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra's government have all the cultural luster of a progressive cause. Professional and highly educated people crowd the streets, and young people shout passionately against corruption. Middle class liberals around the world easily find much they can relate to.

But one thing about this movement bothers liberal analysts, including quite a few in the foreign press. The protesters appear to have lost faith in the key tenet of representative democracy: rule by people or parties elected by the majority of citizens.

The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has maintained massive protests in Bangkok for close to three months. When Prime Minister Shinawatra reacted to the efforts to oust her and her Pheu Thai party from office by dissolving parliament on December 15 and setting elections for February 2, the PDRC responded by saying no to the elections. It called on its supporters to "shut down Bangkok" until Yingluck resigned and advocated replacing her with an unelected "reform council."

While no one denies that Thailand's political system needs reform, many observers feel that the opposition has rejected the elections not simply as a protest against corruption, but rather because it knows it will lose the vote - just as it has lost the last five parliamentary contests.

The Thaksin Upheaval

The current showdown between the Pheu Thai government and the opposition is but the latest round in an epic struggle between conservative and populist forces that began when Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the current leader Yingluck Shinwatra, became prime minister of Thailand in 2001.

Thaksin came to power in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997. That crisis saw over a million Thais drop to the ranks of the poor when what had been one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic economies collapsed due to capital flight, followed by an austerity program imposed by hapless governments under the thumb of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Thaksin had benefited from globalization owing to his massive holdings in private telecommunications, one of the economy's most globalized sectors. Yet, with unerring populist instinct, he sensed that the financial crisis had catalyzed popular fears about free-market globalization, smoldering resentment toward the urban and rural elites that seemed to be cornering the country's wealth, and anger at the international financial institutions.

On becoming prime minister, Thaksin made a number of dazzling, if opportunistic, moves. He paid off the country's loan and kicked the IMF out of Thailand. He initiated a universal health care system that allowed people to be treated for the equivalent of a dollar. He imposed a moratorium on the payment of farmers' debts. And he created a one-million-baht fund for each village, which villagers could invest however they chose.

This side of Thaksin won him a mass following among the country's deprived and marginalized sectors, entrenching him and his coalition in the northern and northeastern regions of the country.

But there was another side to Thaksin, a side that most of his urban and rural poor followers chose to ignore. Thaksin literally bought his political allies, constructing in the process a potent but subservient parliamentary coalition. He used his office to enhance his wealth and that of his cronies. He failed to distinguish public interest from private gain. And he gave short shrift to human rights concerns, most notably by backing a police campaign against drugs that resulted in the extra-judicial executions of over 2,000 people.

Like many others with overwhelming power in their hands, Thaksin overreached. One move in particular galvanized the opposition. When he got the Revenue Department to exempt from taxes the sale of his family's controlling stake in a telecom conglomerate, Bangkok's enraged middle class took to the streets to demand his ouster. Feeling mortally threatened by Thaksin's effort to redraw the landscape of Thai politics, the Thai establishment jumped onto the anti-corruption bandwagon. Unable to break Thaksin's parliamentary majority or to achieve a critical mass in the streets to sweep him from power, the elite pushed the army to oust him while he was out of the country in September 2006.

Redshirts versus Yellowshirts

The military-installed government that took over performed miserably. Following its exit, a pro-Thaksin coalition came to power through elections. When a court order dissolved that coalition, parliamentary maneuvers resulted in a fragile governing alliance cobbled together by the minority Democrats, with Abhisit Vejjajiva at the lead.

Subsequently, Thaksin's supporters (called the Redshirts, in contrast to the anti-Thaksin Yellowshirts) amassed followers nationwide and marched on Bangkok early in 2010. The tragic street confrontations that followed climaxed on May 19, when the military broke up Redshirt barricades in downtown Bangkok. Numerous people were arrested and many others died, and buildings, including the huge Central World mall, went up in flames, allegedly set on fire by the Redshirts.

Under fire for allegedly giving the green light to repressive actions, the Abhisit government was voted out of office in July 2011. A coalition led by the Pheu Thai party replaced it, and Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck, became prime minister of Thailand.

Yingluck has been widely seen as a stand-in or puppet for her brother. Living in exile in Dubai since courts convicted and sentenced him in absentia for corruption, Thaksin is considered by many to be ruling from afar. Perception turned into protest when Yingluck's government tried to push through an amnesty bill to forgive all those charged in connection with the bloody 2010 street protests. Although it would have affected both the anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin sides, the opposition considered the bill a ploy to allow Thaksin to return to the country without serving out his jail term. This was confirmed when, in an early morning parliamentary maneuver, the ruling coalition rammed through a provision that would extend the amnesty back in time, ten years before 2010.

Raising the Ante

With the Bangkok middle class angrily taking to the streets, Yingluck retreated and told pro-government senators in the Senate to withdraw support for the bill. But it was too late. Bangkok has always been an opposition stronghold, and civil protest - led by Suthep Thaugsuban, one of the top leaders of the Democratic Party - escalated. By mid-December, demonstrators numbered in the hundreds of thousands. What had started out as an anti-amnesty movement transformed into a movement to oust the government.

At first, the protesters focused on staging rallies at the historic Democracy Monument in downtown Bangkok. Later they moved on to shutting down government offices. This tactic made the government appear besieged and unable to function - a perception reinforced when opposition Democrats resigned en masse from Parliament.

Yingluck responded by dissolving parliament in mid-December and setting new elections for February 2. Sensing it had momentum, the opposition called for a boycott of the elections, insisting that Yingluck step down and make way for an unelected council to formulate reforms. To give muscle to these demands, the opposition launched a campaign to "shut down Bangkok," targeting government buildings and occupying key intersections downtown. The shutdown has triggered a tailspin in the country's economy, although it has not succeeded in getting Yingluck to resign.

Thailand's Liberal Community: a House Divided

The opposition's stand against elections has deepened divisions in Thailand's liberal and progressive community. Kraisak Choonhavan, an ex-parliamentarian and a pillar of the human rights community, sees non-participation in the coming elections as justified by the effort to achieve "total reform" of the electoral system before holding elections. "Every democracy needs such a period of reform," he contends.

Others disagree. They say what's at stake is nothing short of the basic tenet of democracy: the principle of one person, one vote. Chris Baker, together with his equally prominent wife, economist Pasuk Phongpaichit, has written some of the most comprehensive exposés of Thaksin's amassing of wealth and power. Speaking as a foreign observer to the Bangkok Post, he expressed concern that key forces in the PDRC "have clearly said they think Bangkok people should have more weight in the elections than non-Bangkok people." The Post itself, a supporter of the street protests against the amnesty bill, drew the line at protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's call to boycott the elections. It characterized the move as a "deeply flawed plan" that "contains hugely anti-democratic principles that are troubling at best. The entire call for a year or more of this country under an unelected, unaccountable `council' is unacceptable."

Many liberals and progressives were also troubled by recent remarks from scholar-activist Thirayut Boonmi, an iconic leader of the historic 1976 student uprising. According to The Nation, Thirayut held that "those who voted for the Yingluck Shinawatra administration have forfeited their rights by accepting a corrupt and dictatorial government, which would have to be removed by a `people's revolution.'"

To people like Thirayut and Kraisak, extraordinary means must be taken to rescue Thailand from what they consider the all-pervasive corruption of the country's institutions by the Shinawatra family.

Unrest on the Horizon

Although the situation remains murky, one thing is clear: both sides of the political divide defy simplistic characterizations. The protesters are not simply tools manipulated by traditional political and economic elites who see Thaksin as threatening their interests, as some pro-government analysts have characterized them. Most see themselves as participants in a grand crusade against corruption. On the other hand, most of the masses that have brought the Redshirt coalitions to power have not been bought and corrupted by Thaksin's money, as they are portrayed in anti-government speeches. They really do feel that they are fighting to save democratic rule and economic justice from being destroyed by reactionaries.

While the protests have so far remained largely non-violent, instances of violence, including recent reports of people throwing grenades, portend another bloody dénouement like May 2010. Some pro-government sources think the PDRC strategy may be to provoke the military to intervene, in order to oust Yingluck and impose Suthep's unelected reform council.

The military is hesitant to get involved, given the terrible experience it had governing the country after the 2006 coup. Even after the government declared a state of emergency on January 21st, the military has been extremely careful not to crack down on the protesters, despite their efforts to prevent early voting by blocking polling stations. But tensions are rising, and another putsch is not out of the question. The king, who has long been regarded as a moderating force in Thai politics, will also probably not intervene. Old and ailing, King Bhumibol is no longer in as good a position to act as he did in 1992, when he brought opposing figures together to put an end to military repression of pro-democracy protests.

With no third force to break the deadlock, there is no prospect in sight except deeper and sharper polarization. If Yingluck is ousted, the Redshirts may well invade Bangkok. Alternatively, the February elections may take place and put another Pheu Thai government in power. But this will not end the opposition's refusal to grant legitimacy to any Thaksin-led government - nor will it stop the opposition from using all of its middle-class muscle to try to oust it. For many on both sides, it is no longer a question of if but when this deep-seated civil conflict descends into outright civil war.

[FPIF columnist Walden Bello represents the Akbayan Citizens' Action Party in the Philippine House of Representatives. He was the principal author of Siamese Tragedy: Development and Degradation in Modern Thailand (London: Zed, 1998) and is the former director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.]

Thailand's Protests and the Global Economy

As the economies of Southeast Asia integrate, Thailand's social divide is as stark as ever.

By Layne Hartsell

February 4, 2014
Foreign Policy in Focus

The countries of Southeast Asia are planning to integrate their region in 2015. Meanwhile, in the dynamic city of Bangkok, the government of Thailand seems to be heading in the opposite direction, as recent protests have entered a "shut down" phase.

This was the political atmosphere when I recently visited Bangkok to attend a conference on the ethics of food. At that time, street demonstrations were forming after weeks of smaller actions around ministries in this leading Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) city of 10 million citizens. Reports began to come across my tablet, as I sat pondering the role of agriculture in Thailand and ASEAN during the conference

At first I did not connect the protests with the topic of the conference. The protestors seemed to be engaged in a struggle with the government over how the Thai people operate their political system. But Thailand is a major food exporter, and agriculture is a mainstay of the economy. As such, Thai farmers play a key role in the country's governance. Moreover, both agriculture and governance are central features of the regional integration of ASEAN.

Currently, Thai people on various sides of the issue of governance are fighting over political control and budget priorities, which have been a subject of conflict for a decade. They are also operating in a larger context where power is shifting around in the local, the national, and the regional arenas. "The capital has been the center of political power, where the upper and middle classes claim political power over the country, including the rural areas," observes Thai scholar and former diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University. "This has caused much tension."

Red vs. Yellow

Since 2006, Thailand has experienced a number of changes in government due to a conflict between two powerful groups, generally called the yellow shirts and the red shirts. In 2006, a military coup removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is generally supported by the red shirts, while he was out of the country on official business in England.

The red shirts believe that proper governing structures should be legitimized through electoral democracy by and for the interests of the people. The yellow shirts, on the other hand, generally support what they see as traditional, authority-based ruling structures. They favor a ruling council appointed on the basis of morality. The media generally represents the yellow side as a Bangkok elite that includes the middle class, and the red side as a popular movement of farmers, fisherfolk, students, and others. The categorizations are by no means absolute.

After the forced removal of Thaksin - Thai politicians are often referred to by their first name - martial law eventually gave way to a civilian government. Later, Thaksin was found guilty in absentia. The charge was corruption. According to the verdict of the nine-judge panel, "Thaksin violated the article of the constitution on conflict of interest [in land and business dealings], as he was then prime minister and head of a government and was supposed to work for the benefit of the public." Thaksin immediately countered that the charges were politically motivated.

The current government came to power in 2011 in a landslide led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin. One of the main actions of her administration has been to seek an amnesty law related to past political struggles, which could possibly include an amnesty for Thaksin.

"The current protests link back to the petty crimes and larger crimes of the past, especially in the 2010 protests," explains Arthit Suriyawongkul of Thai Netizens Network. "Many on one side, the yellow shirts, are concerned that past Prime Minister Thaksin will benefit from any amnesty laws put into place. The Constitutional Court issued the Amnesty Bill and many agreed with this proclamation. Groups from every part of society came into the streets."

The initial protest in November brought 100,000 people into the streets of Bangkok. The protests were non-violent. But similar protests in 2010 had left more than 90 people dead, as the then generally yellow-shirt-aligned government resorted to force against protestors in the streets. To defuse tensions, the current Thai government dropped the new amnesty bill. But the yellow-shirt opposition continued protesting on the grounds that the government could reintroduce the bill at any time, and therefore a change of government structure was needed.

The actions of the yellow side, including driving a tractor up to the police barricade in an effort to seize the police headquarters, provoked a response by the red shirts. "On the other side of the city, at Ramkhamhaeng University, a crowd of 100,000 met, red shirts in this case, and their message was that they wanted to show that they are still there to support the democratically elected government," Arthit Suriyawongkul continued. "Apparently they were concerned that the military might become involved. Finally, worried about further confrontation, they decided to remain inside the stadium."

The casualties at that point were six dead and 40 injured. A major issue for all sides were unidentified snipers positioned in various areas outside of police control. According to local sources the snipers came from extremist groups who wanted to cause further disruption; no one knows who they are. The TV news showed the military escorting the students off the campus under sniper fire.

The struggle over the political future of the country has lasted for over two months. It has been bitter and left several protestors dead. The opposition has called for Prime Minister Yingluck to resign, but she has refused. Although the government declared a state of emergency on January 22 and announced new elections as a way to quell potential violence, the protests have continued. Demanding a complete change in government, the yellow shirts boycotted the February 2 elections and physically prevented others from casting their votes, disrupting voting in dozens of districts. They have vowed to continue protesting after the election.

Food Sovereignty, Technology, and the Economy

The current battle on the streets of Bangkok seems to focus on political governance, but the deeper cause of the unrest is a conflict over the Thai economy and the further integration of agriculture and manufacturing. In addition to feeding its own population, and as a major exporter of food, the country has a strong industrial base near Bangkok which is generally controlled, or supported by, elements of the yellow side. The red shirts, meanwhile, generally favor changes that would lead to closing the gap in wealth and power between the farmers of the north and upper classes in and around Bangkok. Moreover, the coming 2015 ASEAN Convergence overarches the drama in the capital and in some other areas of the country.

Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. It already has good infrastructure, a solid and growing manufacturing sector, and major medical facilities. For 2014, Thai rice exports alone are expected to be at around 6.5 million tons, and the nation is among the three largest exporters in the world, sometimes claiming the top spot.

But Thailand also faces significant challenges. Workers from surrounding countries, attracted by the prospect of better wages, are flowing into Bangkok, and there is a serious housing crisis. The influx of cheap labor, as economist Ha Joon Chang of Cambridge University told me in 2011, also threatens to drive down the wages of Thai people. Chang pointed out as well the Bangkok Skytrain and the new transit system to the airport can accommodate the existing level of flow of commuters, but not a sudden and large arrival of people. The current protests offer different visions of how to address these challenges - from the incomes of rice farmers to the housing for city workers.

Increasingly Thailand must balance growth and economic justice within the larger regional framework. Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Indonesia and out to the Philippines, boasts tremendous concentrations of natural resources, port locations, a growing, educated workforce, and an increasing number of English and Chinese speakers. The use of modern technologies - computers, robotics, nanotechnology - can help the region leap across the development gap, though there is also considerable market competition, regionally and globally.

Much of this high technology is already in Thailand, a hub for automotive and electronics production. As Alain Ruche, senior policy advisor at the External Service for the European Union, writes, "Thailand will be engaged politically through economic complexity." This economic complexity, he continues, is expressed in the composition of a country's "productive output and reflects the structures that emerge to hold and combine knowledge." The Economic Complexity Index (ECI) expresses the richness of the product space of a given country and thus its potential for turning knowledge into the production of goods and services. Thailand ranks well in this respect, falling between the two regional powers of China and India. Thailand had a "remarkable increase in economic complexity between 1970 and 1985," Ruche points out. "The economic complexity of that period led to better conditions for the nation."

But will these technological changes benefit only a small number of workers and a narrow slice of the upper classes, or can the country spread the economic gains to the entire population? This is a question being worked out on the streets of Bangkok and in the conference halls of ASEAN as it prepares for the 2015 Convergence.

A Better Life for Thais

The ASEAN Convergence could indeed, and quite quickly, provide better conditions for interaction, trade, and advancement in the lives of all Thais. Better access to technologies and manufacturing through partnerships with foreign companies, along with better access to education for its citizens, would be undeniable benefits for Thailand.

At the same time, there are potential liabilities. First, there is the critical risk of loss of food sovereignty when world prices increase dramatically and various kinds of foodstuffs are exported, rather than retained for the populace at home. Currently, there is a crisis over the local price of mangosteens, which are shipped to Japan and the world market. Other inherent risks lie in transnational agreements that can force Thailand away from the provision of essential goods and services for its people in healthcare, public utilities, and local resources like water and minerals.

In a positive direction, even with the major political conflicts over the past decade, Thailand has done well economically, and could move further in this direction within ASEAN as long as Thai citizens can have an open debate over the risks. The red shirts attribute this current trend to Thaksin's policies. His administration established universal healthcare and provided significant village-level investment that helped to create the conditions for better productivity and improve Thai competitiveness in global food markets.

But the internal political turmoil and the external pressures of the 2015 Convergence could create instability and hinder Thailand from moving forward. Thailand faces a political choice between mere procedural democracy and a true democracy that takes into account the actual interests of all the people.

The political structure is a matter for the Thai people to decide. To advance, Thailand must find a way to combine appropriate rural technologies, a manufacturing sector, and a service sector, along with tourism, into the emerging knowledge economy to create a nation that can both feed itself and the world, while also growing its ability to develop advanced technologies.

The yellow shirts are currently shutting down parts of Bangkok and the process of government itself. It will take a full debate from both colors to keep Thailand moving forward.

[Layne Hartsell is a fellow at the P2P Foundation (Amsterdam) in the philosophy of technology and global justice. He is also a fellow at The Asia Institute (Seoul) in the Technology Convergence and 3E Program (Energy, Economy, and Environment) with Tsukuba University, Japan. He acts as an advisor to Living Bridges Planet (Stockholm) and works on the education of girls and women in science. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.]