Backgrounder on Thailand’s conflicts

28 12 2013

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have a useful backgrounder at India’s Economic and Political Weekly. PPT summarizes by emphasizing some points that seemed useful, if well-known. The deep divide they note takes some of the emphasis away from the current focus on succession politics. While succession is an issue in the mix, the deep and long-established divisions within society cannot be ignored:

[T]he demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.

The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.

In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises….

The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate.

The government backed down almost immediately…

But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum… Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.

The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked.

The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class…. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.

The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east…. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.

From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote.

The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy…. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.

On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle.

The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital…. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.

The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media….


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15 07 2014
No elections anywhere | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] found some political voice through a mushrooming of elections at all levels from national to local. As one op-ed put it: “From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the […]




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