Welcome to the LSE IDEAS Blog

LSE IDEAS is a centre for the study of international affairs, diplomacy and grand strategy at the London School of Economics. This blog features articles, resources, reviews and opinion pieces from academics associated with LSE IDEAS.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Red Monday - The Roots of Thailand's Unrest

The Red Shirts started this protest by pouring their own blood under the gates of parliament as a symbolic move. This weekend, their blood spilt for real as 17 protestors and four policemen were killed. On Monday the Red Shirts carried empty, red-coloured coffins through Bangkok.

The protestors who have filled Bangkok’s streets in recent weeks are the popular face of the supporters of the exiled previous prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. They are the rural farmers from Thailand’s north and northeast who feel that the current government of Thailand has treated Thaksin unfairly, and that the majority of Thailand’s farmers and rural poor are not being listened to in Bangkok.

They certainly have a point. In Thailand’s last general election, the party supported by Thaksin and the Red Shirts swept to power with a majority. But this party was found guilty of vote-buying and electoral offences, and was then disbanded. In the resulting horse-trading between different parties in Thailand’s parliament, the new ruling coalition was not the one supported by the electoral majority.

Yet this problem cannot be resolved easily through a new general election. The problem is that Thailand’s electoral politics are dominated by the immense wealth of Thaksin Shinawatra, who has the financial musclepower to influence elections and fund campaigns even though he is now exiled from Thailand because of corruption and abusing his power when in office. Thailand is in the unprecedented position of having its politics influenced by someone who would be imprisoned if he returned to Thailand, but whom the current government has been unable to muzzle.

It is certainly ironic that the Red Shirts are composed of Thailand’s poorest people, yet are supported by, one of their most notorious tycoons. Thaksin swept to power in 2001 on the back of a slick political campaign and a new style of politics that presented an alternative to the decades of Thai rule from the army and allies of Bangkok’s upper classes.

Thaksin was unusually rich. He had made his fortune on the back of a state-allocated monopoly on mobile phones and telecommunications during the 1980s and 1990s. He also had a popular touch. He was from northern Thailand. He launched Thailand’s first satellite. He went on to own Manchester City football club. When prime minister, he befriended the rural voters by allocating cheap credit to villages, as well as Thailand’s first universal and cheap healthcare.

But Thaksin also misused his power in office, and this allowed his enemies to dispose of him. Thaksin clumsily handled an anti-drugs campaign during the early 2000s that led to some 4,000 people – many of them innocent – being shot by police. His leadership stoked up tension between Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand’s far south. He also used his influence to increase his family’s wealth many times when he was prime minister. Most notoriously, he sold his own Shin Corporation to the rival Singaporeans in 2006, avoiding paying tax, and inciting resentment from the public. He was replaced in a military coup in late 2006 amidst rumours of him trying to influence the Royal Family, and was later convicted of being involved in a fraudulent property deal on behalf of his then wife, and sentenced to two years in jail.

Thaksin, however, did not go away, and he continued to wield influence from abroad. The 2007 general elections were won by a party that was funded by, and openly supportive of, Thaksin. When this party was disbanded for electoral malpractice in 2008, his Red Shirts then stormed political meetings in early 2009, and again in recent weeks. The Thai government’s decision to freeze 1.4bn dollars of his assets earlier this year might have been a further incentive.

But what are the alternatives? If Thailand holds another general election, it is likely that the Thaksin-supported parties will win again. Will they then pardon Thaksin and let him return?

Thaksin’s enemies are determined to prevent this outcome. The Army, in particular, were behind the coup that displaced Thaksin in 2006, and it is unlikely that they will act in a way to destabilize the current government. But there is a need to build trust in general elections to achieve two currently unachievable things: representing Thailand’s rural farmers, and excluding the influence of the exiled Thaksin.

But returning to elections will also increase the chance of unrest from Thaksin’s other opponents – the so-called Yellow Shirts – who adopt a more traditionalist, middle-class, and royalist position than the Reds. The Yellow Shirts held the country to ransom in 2008 by occupying Bangkok’s airports and surrounding parliament.

Violent events like these show how little trust the Thai people place in established forms of democracy such as elections and parliament. But on a wider level it also shows an important transition in Thailand from the age when military governments ruled with a King who was respected by all the population. The King is now 81 and Thailand is a much more complex and varied society. Stable and strong government requires elections to be representative and clean. The longer-term solution is building trust in general elections. In the short term, however, more violence seems likely.

Dr Tim Forsyth is Reader in Environment and Development at the Development Studies Institute (DESTIN) at LSE and board member of LSE IDEAS Southeast Asia International Affairs Programme.


zarni said...

Dr Forsyth's blog understandably shied away from any discussion of a major pillar of the politics here - the monarchy - and the anticipated succession issue and its implications. The blog is lop-sided Thaksin-centered.

I live within a stone-throw away from the sole and largest encampment of the Red Shirts. No doubt the disgraced PM who pursued repugant 'war on drug' and made worse the muslim South's provincial grievances vis-a-vis the Buddhist centre continues to play a significant role in the Red Shirt movement as a figurehead in exile, a strategist and the financier. But to base any analysis on Thaksin is to completely miss the greater foundational/structural issues - the nature of the State and its distribution of power and wealth (from the kingdom to the hush-hush issued of republic, from a country where the BKK-based ruling class lives off the back of the rest of the population which it considers semi-serfs or 'the great unwashed'). Thaksin knew he had inadvertently - or even wittingly - let Thailand's genie out of the bottle, and the only irony here is his choice of Marxist-sounding terminology to describe what is going on - a class war. Nothing less, nothing more. I have heard speeches after speeches live where the Red Shirt leaders emphatically make it clear their struggle is NOT really about Mr Thaksin's return or pardon or being enthroned again.

Derek said...

Tim Forsyth's analysis of the Thaksin phenomenon in Thai politics is commendable, but as Zarni rightly points out, what is happening now with the "Red Shirts" goes well beyond Thaksin himself and strikes at the very roots of Thai society. There is revolution in the wind, but it may not come to that. The role of the monarchy in Thailand is still fundamental. It is encouraging that Thais at all levels are beginning to lose their fear of speaking out about the need for reform of the still highly respected institution. What we are observing today though goes back to Thaksin's electoral victory in 2001 and the forces unleashed by his performance since then - some positive but more generally negative. I would acknowledge that it is a very complex situation, with so many cross currents and shifting alliances, but that is in the nature of Thai politics. The Establishment is undoubtedly behind the "Yellow Shirts", but to whom do the "Multicoloured Shirts" really owe their allegiance, and who is manipulating them? The coming succession to the throne, which in my view will undoubtedly be the Crown Prince, could well usher in changes as fundamental as in 1932. Most Thais to whom I have spoken recently tell me that they feel that enough is enough and that after five years of ferment, there needs to be a deep-rooted political solution in order to resolve precisely those issues which Zarni has highlighted.

Anonymous said...

An excellent analysis. It's good to see a foreigner who truly understands the situation in Thailand. Hopefully the BBC and CNN will read your column so they can understand what is going on in Thailand.
What you forgot to mention is that most of the demonstrators were paid to be there: 300 baht a day for most, 500 for motorcyle taxis & 800 for taxi drivers. Others were promised 200,000 baht if Thaksin gets to return to Thailand.
Thais need more & better education, people need to be able to think for themselves and not follow the crowd. You cannot get real democracy if people can be bought and politicians' aim is to get rich.
We need more good, honest and hard working politicians like PM Abhisit to make Thailand become real democratic.