I recently asked a journalist friend of mine with over 25 years of experience reporting across Southeast Asia, “Do you think it’s possible we’ll see a coup in Thailand soon?” His sardonic reply was, “A coup in Thailand? Well it’s not like that’s ever happened before.”
In its current state, Thai politics is at best dysfunctional and inefficient and at worse dangerously chaotic. There are many variables accounting for this combustible situation. In this post, I will attempt to contextualize the primary reasons why many analysts, including myself, are coming to hold the opinion that another round of politically motivated violence is right around the corner in Thailand.
Firstly, as mentioned in an article I penned for the Southeast Asia Globe, Thailand is divided and segregated along class lines.
“The country can be divided roughly into two main groups: the poor, rural majority; and the Bangkok elite. Likewise, there are two main political parties which represent, in general terms, each interest: the former by the Pheu Thai party and its red shirt surrogates, and the latter by the Democrat Party, who too have their own group of cohorts known as the yellow shirts.”
This division has played out in various open demonstrations over the past six years. In 2008, the pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts were able to successfully shutdown Bangkok’s international airport by protesting on the runways. In 2009, the Red Shirts stormed an ASEAN Summit meeting in the resort town of Pattaya, resulting in delegates from other Southeast Asian nations having to be airlifted by helicopter from the roof of the hotel.
Both the Yellow Shirt and Red Shirts know that mass organizing is a strategy that works. Both sides know that “if [they] don’t get what [they] want, the best tactic now is to take to the streets and paralyse government and business”, wrote the Council on Foreign Relation’s Joshua Kurlantzick in a piece at Asia Unbound.
This class struggle has not, and will not go away anytime soon.
The King is Old and Frail
Historically a steady presence when matters of politics devolve into fighting and conflict, the King has had very little to say about recent events. That is because His Majesty is old and sick. A revered figure in Thai society, when the King does inevitably pass on, there will for certain be a vacuum of sorts in the Thai political system.
This is an unknown variable; there are myriad questions pertaining to issues of succession, legacy, and lèse majesté (LM), a law prohibiting criticism of the King which has become politicized and has taken on a life of its own in recent
months. This past week, the international spotlight was once again cast on Thailand’s LM after the tragic death of Ampon Tangnoppakul, also known as “Ar Kong,” an elderly grandfather who had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for allegedly sending text messages defaming the monarchy. When the King dies it will cause chaos and augment an already tense and apprehensive situation.
The Role of the Military
It was the Army which overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup in 2006. That sparked a series of events which led Thailand down the confrontational and sometimes violent path that the country has taken over the course of the six years since. When Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was overwhelmingly chosen to be Thailand’s next Prime Minister in a democratic election in July 2011, the Army vowed to accept the election results.
However, it is a rocky relationship to say the least between Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government and the military. Thailand is a country which has been defined by coups since the nation became a constitutional monarchy in 1932; to date, there have been more than 20 military coups and the country’s constitution and been ripped up and redrawn several times. The military is an exceedingly powerful actor in Thai politics and always seems to be in an advantageous position to determine the fate of the country.
In a recent piece for The Diplomat, Mr. Kurlantzick writes:
“[T]he Thai armed forces are currently beefing up their strength, working to promote closer intra-army unity, and essentially preparing for a potential conflict with the elected government should Thaksin return to the country, or should the elected government try to carve into the army’s political independence.”
And what of Thaksin, who was convicted in absentia of corruption and graft and sentenced to two years in prison following his removal from office? He has been living in exile in London and Dubai on a passport issued by Montenegro since his ouster. With his sister at the helm in Bangkok, it is widely expected that Thaksin’s charges will be commuted, thus allowing the multibillionaire telecommunications mogul to return to Thailand.
Such a development is bound to upset the Bangkok elite and opposition Democrat Party, which just announced they were voluntarily leaving a reconciliation panel established in the wake of the 2010 Red Shirt street protests which were met with a violent crackdown by the government of Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. That response resulted in over 90 deaths and millions of dollars in damage when protestors set fire to landmark buildings and government offices.
Some contend that, despite living in exile, Thaksin has been the man behind the curtain of the Yingluck administration, operating behind the scenes and out of sight to run the country.
Others thought very highly of Yingluck as she came into office after she skillfully maneuvered her way to the premiership during an arduous campaign season. However, she has been rather ineffective in bringing the country’s divided electorate together, she has failed to mollify tensions with the military, and her bungled handling of the floods which inundated Thailand last autumn and alienated her core constituency of poor, rural farmers have left many observers wondering if her political life will be much shorter than originally anticipated.
Violence in the South
Take a close look at the picture to the right. Now pretend you didn’t know I was writing this story on Thailand. Where would you guess a photo like that had been taken in the context of the current state of global affairs? Baghdad? Kabul? Homs, Syria? Perhaps some hellhole in northern Nigeria? Indeed, that is a photo of downtown Yala, Thailand, the country’s southernmost province and center of an underreported Islamic insurgency which threatens the very fabric of this nation’s delicate peace.
Thailand’s south is a whole other animal altogether. The country’s three southern most provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat were formally apart of Malaysia before being annexed by the Kingdom of Siam at the turn of the 20th century. It is an Islamic region in a country where the majority of people are Buddhists. It is a divide that has become manifest in instances of extreme violence and terrorism throughout the years. Islamists are known to engage in drive by shootings at random targets, as well as decapitate Buddhist monks collecting their alms in the morning and then parade the heads through the streets as a warning to others.
Thaksin cracked down hard on the Islamists during his time in power, a decision which triggered even more violence in response, leading to a brutal cycle of violence. The army, for its part, is likely to advocate a similar military solution to the violence in the south. Will Yingluck appease the military’s insatiable appetite for force in an internal conflict? If not, she may be looking down the same barrel her older brother did those six years ago.
There are a lot of questions posed here, and not too many answers readily available.
The most cogent encapsulation of current Thai politics can be summed by my friend and colleague Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor at Japan’s Kyoto University and a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore: “The possibility for another round of violent confrontation is very real.”