By Connor Phillips.
When President Obama visited Thailand in 2012, he asked the Buddhist monks who were escorting him through the country’s religious sites for their prayers to help the US resolve its relentless budget battles. As intractable as partisan gridlock can seem in the US, however, it has been taken to extremes in this Southeast Asian nation: for the last month, Thailand has been wracked by unrest, the latest phase of a protracted political crisis stretching back over seven years. It all started in 2001, when a telecoms multimillionaire named Thaksin Shinawatra (above, with wife) won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. In many ways, Thailand has never been the same since.
Thaksin brought sweeping populist reforms, providing upward mobility to the country’s masses of rural farmers and instituting a universal healthcare system, while Thailand’s economy boomed. But his regime was also brutal in waging the “war on drugs” and crushing a Muslim insurgency in the south and subject to numerous conflicts of interest thanks to the Shinawatra family’s business holdings. Thaksin’s controversial tenure polarized Thailand, with the rural north fervently supporting him, while the elite and middle class in the capital of Bangkok loathed his venality and autocracy. From this split emerged a protest movement (known as the “Yellow Shirts” thanks to its members’ attire) that culminated in Thaksin’s overthrow and exile and the banning of his party in a 2006 military coup. It seemed that the Shinawatra era was over.
It was not. The coup triggered a counter-protest movement—the “Red Shirts”—based in the country’s north, and Thaksin’s reconstituted party won the next set of elections in 2007 without its leader. In response, the Yellow Shirts started protesting again, and the Constitutional Court dissolved the victorious party for election fraud, allowing the Democrat Party, backed by the Bangkok elite, to form a government. This brought the Red Shirts back out, and despite a brutal crackdown in 2010, Thaksin’s supporters (in his party’s third incarnation) won another victory in 2011, making his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra Thailand’s first female Prime Minister. It is commonly believed that Yingluck is working in concert with her brother, and that Thaksin Shinawatra is the first politician in history to run a country via Skype.
This seemingly endless cycle—election victory, Yellow Shirt protest, dissolution of the government, Red Shirt protest—has its own kind of internal logic. Thaksin and his successors have the votes on their side: so long as they espouse the “Thaksinomic” policies so wildly popular in the rural north, they cannot be defeated. Meanwhile, the old elite—represented primarily by the royalist Democrat Party—has control of or influence over nearly all the other levers of power, from the military to the courts. The latest installment of this Punch-and-Judy show began late in 2013, when Yingluck proposed a compromise amnesty bill that would have cleared the Democrat Party’s leaders of murder in connection with the brutal 2010 crackdown while absolving Thaksin of corruption, potentially allowing him to return to Thailand. The bill was a spectacular miscalculation, temporarily alienating Yingluck’s supporters while enraging the yellow shirts. Within days, the anti-Thaksin forces were back out on the street, another election had been called for 2014, and Yingluck’s bid to end years of political stalemate had gone up in smoke.
What is different about the current protests is not any particular level of violence—so far, Yingluck has shown admirable restraint in not cracking down on the protesters (although it could be that she simply has no control over the country’s security forces). It is the fact that the Democrats, now essentially aligned with the Yellow Shirts, seem to have concluded that they cannot win at the ballot box. Rather than launch any election campaign to speak of, they have instead asserted that the entire apparatus of Thai democracy is illegitimate. Suthep Thaugsuban, the former secretary-general of the Democrat Party and leader of the protests, has declared that the country’s Parliament should be suspended in favor of an unelected “People’s Council” to reform the country’s politics. Until they get their council, the Yellow Shirts are determined to prevent the elections from taking place.
By turning its back on the political process, the opposition is implicitly denigrating the voice of the rural masses that form the backbone of the Shinawatra movement. It is hard to say whether the Yellow Shirts grew to mistrust the north because it supported the hated Shinawatras or whether there was always an undercurrent of thought that poor farmers did not deserve to be full citizens; perhaps both factors played a role. But it is telling that the opposition has steadfastly refused to alter its rhetoric or its policies in order to win over this constituency. Partly, this is because its own base of support, the middle and upper classes of Thai society and the military-palace complex of king and army, are historically opposed to extending privileges to the rural masses. At the same time, substantial elements of the opposition likely genuinely believe that reserving political power to the “good people” who are supposed to staff the people’s council is best for Thailand. So, instead of joining in the long, hard work of reforming itself and the country, the Thai opposition has instead decided that the entire process is pointless if it cannot gain power exactly as it is.
This is a momentous, and potentially calamitous, development. Although democracy is based on the principle of majority rule, the minority also plays a crucial role, which in parliamentary systems is referred to as that of the “loyal opposition.” In this system, the minority labors to keep the governing majority honest by investigating and revealing its mistakes and abuses while opposing its policies with an alternative vision. Nevertheless, it is “loyal” in that it only opposes the current administration’s policies, not the administration’s right to rule or the ideals upon which the government is founded.
Incidentally, it is the breakdown of this paradigm—growing willingness to see a political opponent’s power as illegitimate, and to employ outright obstructionism as a governing tactic—that underlies the partisanship that has engulfed Washington. (Cooperative opposition is especially vital in the US, because unlike a parliamentary system where executive and legislative power is concentrated in the governing majority, the US government is built on the separation of powers, often requiring the opposition party to balance its antagonistic role with constructive participation in the governing process.) Fortunately, the political right’s inveterate hatred for Barack Obama does not reach the level of odium that characterizes the Yellow Shirts’ feelings for Thaksin—yet. In its entire history, the US has only faced two crises of this kind, where a substantial element of the minority simply decided the entire system was flawed and it was best to pull out. The first, arising from the Federalist Party’s implacable opposition to the War of 1812, never came to full fruition because the war ended and the Federalists subsequently collapsed. The second caused the American Civil War.
Thus, it would not be an understatement to say that the Yellow Shirts are playing with fire. Seven years after Thaksin’s ouster, Thailand is even more divided than ever, and the trigger-happy military is waiting in the wings: Thailand has undergone eleven successful coups since 1932, more than any other country. Meanwhile, the only institution that holds the nation together—the monarchy—is hanging by a thread. King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving head of state, is now 86. As the only figure who commands respect from most factions of Thai society (due to laws that forbid criticism of the monarchy as much as anything else), he embodies the Thai nation itself in many ways. And he is ailing. His heir, the impressively-titled Somdet Phra Boromma-orasathirat Chao Fa Maha Vajiralongkorn Sayammakutratchakuman, is much less impressive in person, seen by many Thais as a dissolute playboy. Without Bhumibol, there is precious little holding Thailand together—some agitators have already started calling for the rural north to split from the rest of the country. It is hard to see how this latest round of protests can end peacefully.
All of this is not to assert that the Shinawatras are saints. There is no denying that Thaksin’s rule was autocratic and corrupt, and that his sister’s tenure has largely not been successful. (Her signature initiative, a government program to subsidize rice-growers, failed to anticipate a global slump in rice prices and resulted in Thailand losing its place as the world’s number-one exporter of rice). But there is no excuse for what the opposition is trying to do. “Reforming” democracy in Thailand by preventing votes from taking place or reducing the people’s choices by excluding the Shinawatras is effective disenfranchisement, denying the rural north inclusion in the political process. Unfortunately, it appears that events have gone too far for any feasible compromise. Yingluck has shown steely determination to hold elections on February 2nd as scheduled (even though opposition sabotage has ensured that they will fail to produce a full Parliament). The opposition, realizing that the polls may go on despite their best efforts, is preparing to impeach her for corruption in connection with the rice debacle. The military is watching and waiting. And the king is moldering away. It is hard to tell what will happen next, but one thing is clear: the struggle for Thailand has entered a new phase. And nothing, not even democracy itself, is safe.