Thailand on the Brink: Appearance and Reality in the Land of Smiles
by Daryl Copeland
January 24, 2014
In response to the rising violence which has attended the Bangkok Shutdown movement, on January 21st the beleaguered Thai government imposed a state of emergency. Armed with sweeping new powers, for the next 60 days state security agencies may impose curfews, detain suspects without charge, censor media, ban political gatherings of more than five people and declare areas off-limits.
With what amounts to a declaration of martial law, Thailand’s fledgling democracy has taken a debilitating hit, and the festering political confrontation which began with a coup in 2006 has deepened disturbingly. A military intervention has been mooted.
The occasional visitor to glittering Bangkok, the exotic Golden Triangle or any of the country’s many dreamlike beaches might find all of this somewhat bewildering. On the face of it, Thailand looks like another economic miracle, an Asian tiger in the making, convincing testament to the transformative tonic of globalization. Certainly Bangkok, with its high-tech, integrated transit system, choice of three high speed rail links to the ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi international airport, and drastically improved air quality is a much more pleasant and liveable city than it was 30 years ago when I was posted there.
Yet not far beneath the spectacular hotels, exotic food, superb shopping and astonishing array of accessible vices lurk a number of profound, and still unresolved issues which threaten to undo the progress achieved in recent decades. Though by no means a failed state, Thailand is certainly fragile, and it remains unclear whether or not the badly divided national polity will be able to summon the concerted will required to address the diverse drivers of the current impasse.
The background to the present imbroglio is complex and tangled. The received wisdom – now available in several iterations – is that the current government, headed by PM Yingluck Shinawatra, is a proxy regime for the ambitions of Thaksin, her exiled tycoon brother. He was elected twice but deposed by the army in 2006, and a recent attempt by his sister to secure his return failed. The Shinawatra family’s Pheu Thai Party and its allies have won every election since 2001, and are set to win again in the poll to be held February 2nd. Backed by the “red shirts”, who had occupied large parts of the capital and bore the brunt of the crackdown in 2010, this formation is populist in orientation. It tends to draw its support from those living in rural areas, and especially the impoverished northeastern part of the country.
Opposing the elected government are the “yellow shirts”, a loose alliance conventionally associated with the Bangkok middle and upper classes, the military, the royalty and people from southern Thailand. Led by feisty former Democrat Party MP and Deputy PM and Suthep Thaugsuban, this group is behind the present campaign to replace the government with an appointed council mandated to oversee unspecified “reforms”. Talk of their commitment to democracy notwithstanding, the anti-government coalition is boycotting next month’s elections and seeking to have them postponed.
All of that should be confusing enough. But following a research trip to Bangkok in November, I have concluded that an even larger stakes game is being played out behind the headlines.
Thailand’s rich endowment of natural resources and robust, if cyclical economic growth – it led the world 1985- 96 - have in large part obscured the frailty of the country’s political culture and national institutions. The roots of democracy in Thailand are shallow. Political parties serve mainly as the personal vehicles of ambitious leaders and as patronage dispensing machines. Even for those who can afford it, the rule of law is applied capriciously. Public administration is opaque, corruption thrives, and many central government agencies are weak and unrepresentative.
Awareness of Thailands’s Bangkok-centric, and chronically imbalanced allocation of wealth and resources has been exacerbated by ever higher levels of connectivity. This rising consciousness of sharp lifestyle discrepancies existing between the 70% of the population living in the countryside and the urban elite has fuelled widespread alienation. The uneven provision of services and strikingly divergent employment and educational opportunities have contributed to a growing sense that many are being left behind as fortunes are amassed by a few.
Reaching out to the excluded, however opportunistically, was ousted PM Thaksin’s forte. He remains a hero of the underclass.
In short, the Thai state and its leadership are facing a full-blown crisis of credibility and legitimacy. Personalismo, an over-reliance on the military, the receding influence of the monarchy, and a near complete absence of a participatory, inclusive political culture have eroded the quality of Thai governance. Add to that volatile mix the very public failure of successive governments to manage a long-running Islamic insurgency in the south, and the result is a combination which has left the country paralyzed. The frustration, resentment and disaffection now on such prominent display in Bangkok will be very difficult to contain or roll back.
Why now? For too many years the idea of Muang Thai, or “land of the free”, has in part been expressed as the freedom to exploit nature, the environment, women, children and the nationals of nearby countries. In the face such behavior, it has been suggested that a shared sense of identity – the Thai way of one nation pulling together – will be enough to keep the social fabric from fraying beyond repair. In the present circumstances this, too, has become a highly questionable proposition, particularly with ailing King Bumibol Adulyadej apparently unable to intervene decisively and the controversial question of succession still unsettled. The once unifying ties of Buddhism, the monarchy and Thailand’s long history as independent regional player with a distinct language and culture seem no longer enough to bind.
It is worth recalling that even in places with all sorts of inherent advantages – think of Burma, Argentina, Sri Lanka in the 20th century – things can go terribly wrong.
To be sure, there remain enduring sources of Thai resilience. But Thailand’s image and reputation as a tourist paradise are suffering, and that will create longer-term economic repercussions in terms of employment, foreign investment and the national accounts. The head of the local Toyota operation has already warned that major new expansion plans are at risk.
Are there larger lessons associated with Thailand’s travails? At the highest level of analysis, it could be concluded that underdevelopment breeds insecurity, and that growing inequality leads inevitably to political dysfunction. In these respects, the drama unfolding in Thailand may serve as a litmus test for the polarizing effects of neoliberal globalization, which tends to socialize costs while privatizing benefits.
Just how much elasticity remains in the Thai political economy remains to be seen, but the prognosis is not encouraging. If something fundamental snaps, then the consequences could be devastating.
Thailand’s ASEAN neighbours, many of which suffer from very similar development and security ills, will undoubtedly be paying close attention.
As should everyone.