LONDON–In the 1950s and ’60s, when Thailand experienced the bulk of its 19 military coups , a dark joke circulated through the market stalls of Bangkok that the country had three political parties — the army, the navy, and the air force. Last month, it was the army, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, which stepped in on May 20th to declare martial law and then, two days later, a coup d’etat. In one of their first — and most ironic — acts, the military banned a screening of George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian tale about life in a police state. Though a coup is nothing new in the “Land of Smiles,” the current situation — exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the failing health of Thailand’s revered, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej — threatens to tear Thailand apart.
This story — of a factionalized country forcibly welded together through military might — is as old as Thailand itself. Older, in fact. The pattern began some seven centuries ago , when the region’s city-states first began jockeying for control of the Mekong and Chao Praya basin. With none able to gain the upper hand for long, the so-called land of Siam — with no borders or defined geographic boundaries — gradually coalesced into a loose collection of ethnically-diverse warring states and kingdoms.
It wasn’t until 1874, when British timber companies threatened to colonize the region, that the southern kingdom of Siam’s King Chulalongkorn sent his newly professionalized troops to the former northern kingdom of Lanna and began establishing a top-down administrative state — essentially colonizing the country from within to prevent its colonization from without. It wasn’t until 1880, with France and Britain nibbling away at Siamese territory, that the kingdom first hired a surveyor to map the borders of its territory, which encompassed Lao, Khmer, Shan and Chinese ethnic groups. A series of treaties with France at the turn of the century fixed the country’s current eastern border with Laos and Cambodia. In 1909, the southern border between present-day Thailand and Malaysia was defined, as Bangkok maintained authority over five northern Malay states while relinquishing its claims to sovereignty over four others. And while Thai versions of treaties in 1902 began to refer to the country as “prathet thai” — translated, “country of the Thai” — it wasn’t until 1939 that the country officially became known by the invented name of Thailand.
As the current junta — which has grimly promised not to violate human rights “too much” — rounds up dissidents by the hundreds, bans gatherings larger than five people, and imposes a nationwide curfew, the people are bystanders in their own nation . And, depending on whom you ask, that’s either a travesty or a welcome relief.
While Thailand has technically been a democracy since 1932, the strength of the palace elite and their willingness to assent to frequent coups means that Thailand has only really begun to grapple with the implications of democracy over the past decade. In that time, Thailand’s government has been dominated by the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra — elected prime minister in 2001 but overthrown by the military, sentenced to two years in jail and exiled in 2006 — who focused his efforts on assisting the rural poor, long neglected by the Bangkok elite. The most recent unrest stems from an attempt by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck — elected prime minister in 2011 in his absence — to ram an amnesty bill through Parliament permitting Thaksin to return to Thailand. For the monarchy and the urban upper class, always suspicious of Thaksin and his populist rabble-rousing, this was the final straw.
At the core of the current conflict is the question, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Greg Poling asks: “How does the nation reconcile a growing majority demanding full democracy with a vocal minority, backed by the traditional centers of power, terrified of mob rule?”
Hailing from those traditional power centers are the so-called Yellow Shirts, largely comprised of the Bangkok and palace elite and deriving their support from the south. To them, the present coup is the answer to that conundrum. As one pro-Yellow Shirt friend says, “For once, the happy end of Hollywood came through — the good guys won.” Another elaborates that “This coup is now seen as our last resort, our only solution… It is now impossible to have an election as many now reject the idea in fear that politicians, in order to gain power, will use vote buying, populist policies, or local influence.” Adds the diplomat Anton Smitsendonk, an “immediate return to the barracks right now would be an error.”
In the eyes of the Yellow Shirts, the fact that Thaksin and his allies have won all six elections in the past decade — by historic margins — does not mean that Thai democracy is working. Instead, they believe, as one friend puts it, that “those who advocate elections do so in order to pave the way for certain politicians to assume power and abuse it.” In Thaksin’s emphasis on the poor, they see handouts and vote-buying. In Yingluck’s signature program — a rice subsidy to northern farmers — they see graft and mismanagement.
On the other side are the Red Shirts, largely poor northern farmers, who want the government they voted for and the policies they were promised. Many acknowledge Thaksin’s cronyism and corruption, but nonetheless point out, as one friend says, that he “instituted genuinely new policies in healthcare, education, low-cost loans, rice price support schemes, etc. that genuinely made a major difference to the lives of the rural poor.” “Northerners are not the stupid ‘buffaloes’ as Bangkok middle class Thais tend to think,” another friend tells me. “They vote for a party that has made a discernible difference to their lives.” The real problem, as Thai political analyst David Streckfuss sardonically puts it , is that “the Bangkok establishment sees democracy as an unfair use of their tax money.”
With both sides sticking to their guns — all too literally, in the military’s case — something has to give. “Teflon Thailand” has managed to grow at 4.2 percent annually despite a decade of political instability and natural disasters, but Thailand cannot buck the tide of history indefinitely. And while General Prayuth can promise — in the propaganda song he penned and sends scantily-clad women to sing–that “The land will be good soon/Happiness will return to Thailand,” the military cannot make it so.
What Thailand needs is a new paradigm — and, fortunately, there may be hope.
“I do not believe Thailand is a divided country,” long-time Thai expert and strategic advisor Joe Horn-Phathanothai says. The Red and Yellow Shirts “are a minority, albeit a vocal one.” In that case, the silent majority — call them Orange Shirts, a blend of red and yellow — must speak out and demand a middle ground.
They should call for a democracy in which all parties compete to be responsive to the needs of all Thais, the rural poor included. A democracy, as Smitsendonk describes it to me, “Not only at election times, but throughout the whole period governments are in power and [with] democratic legal management of their operations with control of corruption.” One recognizing that, in a true democracy, the losing parties regain control of the government with ballots, not bullets–and that the winners have an obligation to govern responsibly and in the entire country’s interest.
And to ease the concerns of the Yellow Shirts, both sides should help draft a Thai Bill of Rights specifying the fundamental rights of every Thai citizen regardless of who’s in power, to protect minority rights against the tyranny of the majority.
“I don’t see this as a permanent decline in Thai democracy but rather part of the learning curve,” Nick Spencer, a long-time Thai resident and businessman, tells me. “There is no way in the longer term that the aspirations of the 60 percent who voted for the red shirts are not going to be realized. It may well not be Thaksin and his family who will take the ultimate lead in this (and probably better that they do not) but other politicians… will see this.”
We can only hope. Thailand may be a historically-fractured, cobbled-together country, but that doesn’t mean that it should pass up a golden opportunity — an Orange opportunity — to invent a better future for itself.