BANGKOK—In the summer of 1818, as then-United States Army General Andrew Jackson led troops south into Spanish Florida and the U.S. pressed westward with the admission of Illinois as the 21st state, America’s horizons broadened invisibly but indelibly halfway around the world. On a hot and hazy June day of that year, after a stomach-churning 190-day ocean voyage from U.S. shores to Southeast Asia, the first American set foot in Thailand, then known as Siam.
Captain Stephen Williams, a veteran of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, was not an official envoy. Instead, he was a Massachusetts spice merchant who had come to Siam seeking sugar. Journeying up the Chao Phraya River, he was received in the city of Siam by the minister of trade and foreign affairs, who brought him to the palace for an audience with the Crown Prince, who would soon succeed his father to become Rama III, King of Siam. In a letter to U.S. President James Monroe, discovered among Monroe’s papers years after he died, Siamese nobleman and court reporter Dit Bunnag recounted the royal meeting and exhorted the U.S. commander-in-chief that if another American merchant should find his way to Siam, “he should bring as many good rifles as can be carried” to offer as trade.
Despite the largely productive relationship enjoyed by the U.S. and Thailand over the next two centuries, his words have now become darkly prophetic. Even as the American embassy here begins planning a grand celebration in 2018 of our 200-year relationship, it does so in a nation ruled not by commerce, but guns. Thailand today is governed by a military junta that overthrew the country’s democratically-elected government in 2014—the country’s 19th coup, to go along with 20 constitutions, since the establishment of Thailand’s democracy in 1932. As a result, this one-time jewel of Southeast Asia now endures a stagnant economy, an historic drought, growing social unrest, and military leaders recently described as “increasingly erratic, incompetent, and repressive.”
While it has long been understood here, as a prominent Thai journalist tells me, that the army is the “circuit breaker” for this country’s problems, something feels different this time. The divisions in society that led to this latest coup feel more entrenched and less inclined toward compromise than ever before. The military, long accustomed to playing a caretaker role until the next election, is becoming, in the words of a respected long-time British writer friend here, more “crass, reactionary, and petty” by the day, making uncharacteristic grabs for power that will endure long after the next civilian government takes office. For the first time in the more than 25 years that I’ve made annual trips here, this city has a palpable sense of unease, unsure of what will come next. I hate to admit it, but if Thailand were a stock, I would short it: I would get out now and buy again at a future date, after the country works through its issues.
Despite a population long known as “hard to keep down,” as a local observer here puts it, the political unrest and accompanying economic downturn have finally worn on the country formerly known as “Teflon Thailand.” Thanks to the open hostility between Thailand’s main interest groups—namely, the military, the monarchy, the urban elite (along with southerners and wealthy rubber farmers), and the rural poor in the north—the gridlock in Bangkok today makes it increasingly difficult to envision a prosperous, united country emerging, as each faction plays a zero-sum game for control.
The rural farmers in the north, derided as uneducated “buffaloes” by the urban elite, were content for most of the past 80 years to be voiceless. But that changed with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra, the polarizing, populist business tycoon who won a sweeping victory in 2001. As Prime Minister, he united what had previously been a series of regional interest groups into a broad coalition of “red shirts”—low-income and rural voters who make up about two-thirds of the total population. His fulfillment of campaign promises to make health care more accessible for the poor and to send money to struggling villages won Thaksin the undying loyalty of a large swath of the electorate.
But while northern farmers celebrated their electoral empowerment, the urban elite “yellow shirts” in Bangkok saw their influence diluted by a man whose policies ran directly counter to their interests. As money flowed out of the capitol to Thaksin’s new social programs in the north, they saw not democratic representation but corruption and abuse of power. They marched in the streets for his resignation, and in 2006, the army “restored order” with a coup, charging Thaksin with crimes against the state and forcing him into exile.
Five years later, in 2011, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party dominated elections again, electing the former Prime Minister’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to his old office. But a rice subsidy scandal, along with an ill-conceived effort to force an amnesty bill through parliament allowing her brother to return home, led to her overthrow at the hands of the military two years ago.
Hence, today’s Catch-22. The elites say they support democracy but realize that any free and fair election in a country where rural farmers significantly outnumber urban elites will never go in their favor—meaning not simply a permanent loss of power, but the inconceivable idea, as one journalist puts it, that “these uneducated barbarians will take over our country.” Pro-democracy populists, meanwhile, counter that the elite yellow shirts still refuse to put forth any proposals beyond maintaining the status quo while robbing the majority of the population of its rightful say. Neither side has demonstrated a willingness to compromise.
Looming over this conflict is Thailand’s revered but ailing King Bhumibol, who has played the role of peacemaker in the past, famously summoning the leaders of two opposing factions to the palace after a chaotic 1992 election. But the 88-year-old monarch is now hospitalized and has faded from public view, leading a local leader to suggest that the country may already be experiencing what a “post-king era” might feel like.
That leaves the army, which quickly sought after the 2014 coup to “burnish a reputation as crime-busters,” as a local paper here recently described it, with “crackdowns on everything from gambling rings to drunk drivers” but has also “suppressed free speech, detained scores of political dissidents, and sidelined allies of the government they toppled.” Their recent interventions have aligned them more closely with the elites—when the junta rules, it means the red shirts do not—and with the monarchy, as they enforce harsh lèse-majesté laws that criminalize criticizing the King.
In recent months, as one long-time local writer friend tells me, “the situation is deteriorating rapidly, with the government not just being autocratic, but repressive.” He adds, “A regular feature of life here now is seeing citizens who voice dissent—including politicians, activists, and journalists—being picked up by the army and detained in military camps for what they call ‘attitude adjustment.'” Indeed, early last month, the junta announced the fresh purge of what it called 6,000 corrupt “influential people.”
But even that didn’t prepare the country for the unprecedented step military leaders took last week, when they announced they were expanding the powers of the military to include policing crime. Incredibly, under the new law, any member of the armed forces above the rank of second lieutenant is now empowered, as my writer friend puts it, “to arrest anyone they suspect of alleged criminal activity, without a warrant, and detain them secretly and without charge for up to seven days. The military has also been given the freedom to freeze bank accounts and seize property. And they have been granted automatic immunity, with no recourse available—while whitewashing the very obvious military corruption.” It’s little wonder that human rights groups, journalists, free speech advocates, and even some high-profile western ambassadors have warned that the zealous application of these restrictions could quickly become a catch-all to silence political dissidents, bolstering the military’s power.
The final product of all of this is that Thailand is stuck. Red shirts lack power, and yellow shirts lack ideas. Each is afraid of what they perceive as the other’s all-or-nothing approach. The King is unable to intercede, and the military is unwilling to let the messy, necessary process of political discourse unfold.
It is always possible that one side could budge with international prodding. But breakthroughs look as rare in Thailand these days as Americans were here 197 years ago. The impasse won’t last forever. But we might have to wait until the 210th anniversary of the U.S.-Thai friendship to find happy faces again in the land of smiles.