One lingering image of the May 19th violence in the streets of Bangkok captured the paradox of modern Thailand: a tattered Thai flag rippling over a gilded Buddha, in front of a shopping mall engulfed in smoke.
The Thai army and police have now cleared thousands of “Red Shirt” demonstrators from central Bangkok and taken a number of their leaders into custody. The barricades and refuse from a three-week standoff have been cleared. The protest began largely peacefully, but the violence resulting from clashes between some militants and the security forces that began on April 19 ultimately caused the deaths of at least 85 demonstrators, security personnel, and journalists, and injured more than one thousand.
Some of the 36 buildings torched by Red Shirt militants fleeing the heavy use of security forces are still smoldering. Many of them, like the Stock Exchange and Central World Plaza, a vast shopping mall featuring international brands, symbolize the gap between the immediate beneficiaries of rapid economic growth and those who view themselves as left behind. The latter include the urban poor and farmers from the hard-scrabble rural northeast. The deep political conflagration is likely to smolder long after the buildings are cleared or reconstructed.
Many aspects of the May 2010 violence echoed Thailand’s last major violent political upheaval, precisely 18 years earlier. That eruption resulted when public discontent with a military-dominated parliament prompted 200,000 overwhelmingly peaceful protesters to march on the seat of government in old Bangkok. Security forces responded harshly. Four days of violence culminated in dozens of deaths and disappearances and thousands of arrests, ending only after the direct intercession of the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Two significant events rooted in that “Black May” of 1992 underlie the current conflict: the genesis of the 1997 “People’s Constitution,” completed in the crucible of financial crisis, and the political rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, billionaire telecom tycoon-cum-populist prime minister.
Since the 2006 coup that ousted him from power, former Prime Minister Thaksin’s jabs about the court decisions that dismantled his party and convicted him of corruption in absentia have been a continual annoyance to the political establishment and a goad to the “Red Shirts” who represent a voice for populist power but no real policy platform. To make matters worse, Thaksin has eluded extradition with impunity and allegedly guided and financed the “Red Shirt” takeover of Central Bangkok from exile. Thaksin even taunted the Abhisit government by consorting with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at a time when Thai-Cambodian relations have been deeply strained by a decades-long border dispute over an historically important Buddhist temple.
As the city returns to “normal,” the Democrat Party-led ruling coalition and the Bangkok political establishment that has long dominated Thai politics could be at risk of missing an opportunity to address the social and political forces that brought Thaksin to power and continue to sustain his influence. The government has acknowledged the existence of socioeconomic fissures in the pro-Thaksin heartland of central and northeast Thailand, but its statements thus far have mainly aimed at persuading the Thai people and the world to lay blame for the conflagration on “terrorism” fomented from abroad by Thaksin.
The danger in focusing too closely on the man rather than the discontent for which he has become a symbol is twofold. First, no matter what party banner Thaksin’s supporters fly, they have won every election since 1997 (including the last one in December 2007 under an Army-backed constitution and electoral process). Deeply contentious court decisions have repeatedly denied various incarnations of this political party their spoils – the crux of the Red Shirts’ bitterness and the demand for new elections.
Second, charges of terrorism are unlikely to sway Thaksin’s supporters at home while raising questions abroad about whether Thaksin, as he claims, was in fact primarily overthrown and convicted of financial crimes for political reasons. This question already has helped Thaksin remain at large and protect millions of dollars in foreign and domestic bank accounts from Thai government claims.
May 2010 is not May 1992. Whatever economic and sociocultural grudges the Red Shirt leaders bear, they are clamoring for a piece of the pie, not a radical new future. The coalition government is invested in progress under a pluralistic political system, even if factions disagree on the best direction. The cohesiveness of the military remains, but its role in politics is no longer as direct as in the past, nor do the generals want to rule. Most significantly, the violence ended without conspicuous intervention by the King.
In the end, politicians and the bureaucracy can only secure a peaceful future by following Thaksin’s example: winning support in the dissident northeast by investing in infrastructure, education, health services and other measures designed to raise the standard of living. This positive approach also could help address the violent anti-government movement by ethnic Malay Muslims in Thailand’s deep South. Prime Minister Abhisit attributes the Red Shirt demonstrations in part to the fact that the government has been moving in this direction and undercutting Thaksin’s support base. Whether this is the case can only be tested in new elections.
The unresolved conflict may be rooted in generations of Thai politics, but it takes place against a backdrop of accelerated globalization – where too much, too fast, is not a complaint but a recurring motif. A “perfect storm” of external shocks and internal tensions conflated in Thailand’s current crisis. Thailand is certainly not unique as a contemporary emerging economy where the skewed distribution of essential services and financial resources dates from the pre-globalization era. Leaders in other countries where economic changes have outpaced changes in political institutions are watching closely.
Thai leaders have made the constitution an instrument of political adaptation, rather than the bedrock of law. In this case, the malleability of Thai constitutions may be an asset. A new constitution that enshrines the core democratic principles of the 1997 version but ensures a more accountable and transparent judicial process would send a strong message about the durability of democracy in the Thai mold.
The U.S. has significant interests at stake – especially democracy and regional stability and should support Thai government initiatives that address these core issues and revalidate Thailand’s democratic development. If Thailand can overcome this recent upwelling of violent street politics and make the necessary economic and political adjustments to restore stability, it could point the way to other countries in the region that face similar challenges without a democratic framework for meeting them. In this context, the Obama administration should work with Thailand to forge a broader conception of the Thai-US alliance. Promoting regional cooperation through the U.S. Lower Mekong Initiative – health, education, climate change adaptation, infrastructure – could help address the development gaps that sent protesters into the streets of Bangkok.