The Two Thailands: Thailand’s Path Forward after the Coup of 2014

Scene of Thai protest 2013-2014.  Copyright: AFP/Getty Images/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Scene of Thai protest 2013-2014.
Copyright: AFP/Getty Images/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Six months of paralyzing street protests in the Thai capitol Bangkok met an abrupt end when the Commander of the Royal Thai Army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a coup d’état on May 22, 2014. The dropping of the sword of Damocles, surprisingly, did not generate a massive outpour of negative reactions from the capitol’s general population. Besides the fear of reprisal from state security forces, it seems as if the people of Bangkok has had enough of the chaos and instability and are ready to move on with their daily lives. Four days later, under the auspices of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, the political helm of the country was officially transferred into the hands of the newly formed military junta led by General Prayuth, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Although the generals secured a legal basis for the coup, they nevertheless face a daunting task. Lying in front of them is a Thailand in agonizing pain, injured by deepening fault lines developed over the past decades. How to move Thailand forward without risking an all out civil war is the million-dollar question still anticipating a definitive answer.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and company appear before a news conference.  Copyright: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and company appear before a news conference.
Copyright: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

At present, two distinct Thailands exist on multifarious levels. On one hand there are the well-to-do Thais and royalist elites, mostly concentrated in Bangkok and around central Thailand. Their members identify themselves as the Yellow Shirts. Well-connected, their intimate ties with the Thai establishment (the monarchy, military and existing bureaucracy) gives them enormous power in overturning the democratic process, if it contradicts their interests. On the other hand, there is the toiling population of urban and rural Thailand that benefited tremendously from the populist policies of former prime ministers Thaksin and protégé Yingluck Shinawatra. Collectively known as the Red Shirts, the majority of them resides in Thailand’s north and northeast, two regions culturally disparate from central Thailand, and has a history of uneasy relationship with the ruling elites of Bangkok.

The leader of the Red Shirt Village movement, Arnon Sannan. The movement is a political initiative started by Thaksin's followers to consolidate rural support for pro-Thaksin parties. Copyright: AFP

The leader of the Red Shirt Village movement, Arnon Sannan. The movement is a political initiative started by Thaksin’s followers to consolidate rural support for pro-Thaksin parties.
Copyright: AFP

The gap that exists between the Reds and Yellows are steep and multitudinous. The increasing animosity between the two Thailands are not merely borne out of class or regional dissimilarity, it is a combination of political, social, economic, cultural as well as regional factors that presents a head-scratching equation to Thailand’s incipient military government. The failure of the current quasi-democratic political system to adequately address the centrifugal forces in society culminated in the 2006 and 2014 coup that ended with the illegal removal of prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and subsequently Niwatthamrong Boosongpaisan (a close ally of Thaksin that succeeded Yingluck as prime minister following the latter’s dismissal from office by the Thai constitutional court on May 7). In retrospect, the coup of 2006 had a minimal impact upon curing Thailand’s socio-economic and political ills, if anything, it only served to further polarized the two Thailands.

Though a dyed-in-the-wool royalist staunchly opposed to Thaksin and Yingluck’s brand of populism, General Prayuth is closely emulating Thaksin’s statecraft characterized as the “iron fist and velvet glove”. In Thaksin’s own words: “in social service role you use velvet glove, if you do the law enforcement role you use the iron fist”.[1]

“Iron fist” policies were immediately applied after the military captured power. The junta quickly detained a number of influential figures in the Thai capitol. On the local level, Thaksin’s allies fell one after another in a swift purge orchestrated by the junta.[2] Moreover, security forces raided facilities belonging to Red Shirt groups and seized firearms and explosives, evidence used to substantiate the necessity of martial law.[3]

Particular kinds of “velvet glove” policies were adopted to calm the frustrated Thai population. The junta promised additional reforms before calling the next election, but its moves so far seems more tactical than genuinely reformist. The rural rice farmers that make up the core of Thaksin and Yingluck’s supporters are the junta’s primary targets. Under the rice-pledging scheme of Yingluck’s administration, the government would purchase rice from Thai farmers at a price above the market value. However, due to six months of political deadlock the government was unable to secure a budget to pay the rice farmers. Once in power, the junta quickly allocated 2 billion Thai baht as late payment to the Shinawatra’s core supporters, a crafty stratagem that not only ameliorated the vitriolic situation in the Thai countryside, but also secured for the time being the goodwill of Thai rice farmers.[4]

Yet despite the “iron fist and velvet glove” way of governance, the junta still has a long way to go before bringing Thailand back to normalcy, if that’s even possible. The use of heavy-handed tactics to restore order, and financial means to appease the agitated rice farmers may very well treat the symptom, but it does not cure the root causes of the rural and urban poor’s frustrations against the established Thai polity’s inability to address their long-term aspirations.

After tossing out both Thaksin and Yingluck, it is easy to imagine the anger and sense of betrayal felt by their loyal supporters. Well organized, financially competent and much better informed than eight years ago, the underprivileged population of Thailand wants active reforms championed by an artful man like Thaksin who creatively conjures up new ideas to the benefit of their interests rather than passive reforms under his opponents.[5] Since the Red Shirts are unlikely to take up an armed struggle for power – a development that would totally delegitimize their ticket to winning a landslide electoral victory – the junta would be facing once again a quandary as it ponders its next move.

2011 Thai election results, when the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party won a sweeping victory.  Copyright: The Nation

2011 Thai election results, when the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party won a sweeping victory (click image for higher resolution). Note the regional divide. 
Copyright: The Nation

Presumably, the junta, under the command of General Prayuth would pull all strings possible to appoint a balanced candidate to represent the interests of the royalists without inflaming the caustic sensitivities of the Red Shirts. But the chance of that candidate winning a general election would be slim given the Red Shirts’ overpowering numerical advantage among other factors. The most fearful aspect in the coming years would be the occurrence of another coup that overthrows a government legally elected by majority vote, an event that will most certainly engender radical factions of the Red Shirt movement and drive Thailand farther down the road of potential civil war. The esteemed King Bhumibol, already 86 years old, seems to be the only determinant keeping Thailand from falling apart. The Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, notorious for his decadent lifestyle, largely lacks his father’s enchanting clout over the Thais. If appropriate measures are not implemented by the incoming administration to address the aspirations of Thailand’s majority before the current King’s imminent passing in the next decade, long held grievances of the two Thailands may possibly unravel and bring a dreadful civil war upon the dreamy land of smiles.

 

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

[1] 杨澜访谈录泰国Thailand领导人他信Thaksin Shinawatra专访, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9uoISzBZOo&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

[2] Manop Thip-Osod, “Police Shake-up Cuts Ties to Thaksin,” Bangkok Post, accessed May 29, 2014, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/412363/police-shake-up-cuts-ties-to-thaksin.

[3] Wassana Nanuam and Aekarach Sattaburuth, “Fears of Red Shirt Uprising after Weapons Seizure,” Bangkok Post, accessed May 27, 2014, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/411608/fears-of-red-shirt-uprising-after-weapons-seizure.

[4] “Rice Farmers Overjoyed as Payments Begin,” The Nation, accessed May 27, 2014, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Rice-farmers-overjoyed-as-payments-begin-30234699.html.

[5] For more information on Thaksin’s populist policies, see Patana Tangpianpant’s article titled Thaksin Populism and Beyond: A Study of Thaksin’s Pro-Poor Populist Policies in Thailand

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