This is my personal take on recent events in Thailand.
What is happening in Thailand is completely unprecedented. Yes, there have been 18 coups since the war, but every coup has been the result of either struggles within the military or struggles between the military and elements of the Thai elite. Yes, there have been mass demonstrations and massacres before, notably in 1976 and 1992, but these were led by largely middle class groups such as students, mainly based in Bangkok.
The Red Shirts
In contrast the Red Shirt movement is a true mass movement with support across the country, and with relatively weak links to any faction within the military. Within the red shirts there are, inevitably, many factions including trade unions, anti-poverty activists, and supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
I am convinced that the vast majority of Red Shirts are peaceful people. I spent some time wandering around their main protest sites in April. People were uniformly friendly, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed. Speakers all emphasised the need for peace and restraint.
Thaksin was a billionaire before he was elected as prime minister. He is the only civilian prime minister ever to complete a term, and the only elected prime minister ever to be re-elected. When in power he passed some simple reforms which made a huge difference to poor people across Thailand, including many members of my extended family. These included small pensions for the elderly, free or cheap health care, and improved education. He is the first politician ever to deliver on promises to look after the rural poor.
The problem is, certainly in my view, he is not a very nice man. He dominated the media through ownership and government control (echoes of Berlusconi), he ordered the extra judicial executions of thousands of alleged drug dealers, he dealt with the Islamic troubles in the South in an insensitive way, and he passed a law which allowed his main business to be sold overseas with no tax penalty.
I wouldn’t vote for him, but that is a choice for the Thai electorate and nobody else.
The Yellow Shirts
The reds are opposed by the government and most of the military. The government is supported by another mass movement who took to wearing yellow shirts. Generally these people are a coalition of monarchists and members of the traditional ruling elite, with support from the middle classes. The yellow shirt represents support for the king of Thailand (pink is another royal colour). The yellow shirts, you may remember, took over Bangkok airport a couple of years ago to protest against the elected government. Some of them used violence in that protest but, again, most were peaceful. They effectively succeeded in bringing down the government aided by a military coup. The present government is the non-elected result.
The yellow shirts have openly said that they do not feel that democracy is suitable for Thailand in its current state. The justify this by pointing to the corruption of previous elected governments, and to the lack of education of the majority of people in the rural parts of Thailand.
The Role of The King
It is impossible to overstate the love and respect that Thais hold for their king. I have never met a Thai person who does not feel like that. In the past the king has been marginally involved in various political crises. In 1992 he intervened to bring the two sides of an escalating dispute together. (I will not use this blog to criticise the king of Thailand, not lease in deference to the strong Lese Majeste laws in Thailand!)
However, at the moment the king is ill. Presumably very ill as he lives in a hospital. This has limited his ability to intervene, if he wanted to. To complicate things further, the crown prince, potentially his heir, is deeply unpopular and is perceived by many to have none of the king’s qualities of wisdom and care.
Some people involved in the dispute have taken advantage of this situation. It has been alleged that Thaksin would like to replace the king and that the red shirts want to harm the king. There is no evidence whatsoever for either of these allegations. All red shirts I know still support the monarchy and the king.
Before the recent troubles the lese majeste laws were used by government supporters as an instrument of repression: if you criticise the government you are criticising the king.
The Impact on Thai Society
Thai people pride themselves on their generosity and kindness. Thai people go to great lengths to avoid disagreements, and in particular to avoid open displays of anger. Thai society is essentially paternalistic – the rich are expected to care for the poor, and the poor are expected to respect the rich. This has worked well over centuries, not only making Thailand prosperous, but also making it one of the most pleasant and safest countries in the world.
Freedom and democratic standards are higher in Thailand than in most comparable countries. For example, the press is generally free, and women have a very high level of equality. Demonstrations are not uncommon. Often these take the form of an individual or group going to parliament to plead their case – an ancient tradition. Some demonstrations have turned violent in the past, but over a very short period of time. After such outbursts there have been long periods of recriminations, with some of the leading perpetrators being exiled or prosecuted even if they were on the government side.
What is happening now is very different. People in Thailand are completely polarised. People are openly angry, and many talk openly of wanting violent retribution for their opposing side. The pro government people feel that the reds are either terrorists or are pawns of Thaksin. Their is masses of propaganda with lurid stories of reds wanting to kill the king, stockpiling heavy weapons, planning terrorist attacks, etc. This has had the impact of making people more angry and scared. It also means that the deaths of dozens of unarmed reds is acceptable to many Thai people.
There is no evidence to back up any of these rumours against the reds, but it is certainly true that a small number of reds are armed and prepared to fight – these are the Black Shirts. They have been disowned by many of the red leaders.
A friend of mine is an example of a red supporter. Mali is in her forties and has had a tough life, coming from a poor farming family. In recent years she has run a successful bar and would have made a lot of money if she didn’t gamble quite so much! I have known her for 22 years and never heard her talk about politics. She has joined the reds three times and has a very good understanding of the issues. She says that all the reds she met were peaceful people and she felt completely at home among them, not least as many are from her region, Isaan. In particular, she felt that drugs were controlled under Thaksin, and she views the present government as being corrupt and losing control of drugs.
In contrast Jit, my ex and Mali’s best friend, tends to support the yellows because she is strongly monarchist and believes that the reds are being disrespectful to the king. Her partner spends his days soaking in the blood curdling propaganda in some of the newspapers against the reds.
What Will Happen Next?
I have no idea! I don’t think anyone does. Thailand has a fantastic ability to compromise and avoid dangerous disputes. The entire period since the war has been a cycle of democracy, coup, democracy, coup. That might suggest that out of this dispute will come some faltering steps back to democracy.
But some things about this dispute are unique: the role of the ailing king; the fact that Thaksin, through his limited reforms, opened a Pandora’s box of expectations among the poor; and the really deep levels of hatred and distrust between the two groups.
Thailand remains one of the safest, most friendly, and most exciting places to visit in the world. All Thais are conscious of this and no Thais want to change it. Personally I cannot imagine civil war there, and my gut feeling is that compromise will win. But it is impossible for anyone to be sure.