Putting the Thai Crisis in Context

6 MINS READMay 20, 2014 | 21:50 GMT
Putting the Thai Crisis in Context
The silhouette of a Royal Thai Army machine gun in front of a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the day after martial law was imposed in Bangkok.
Rufus Cox/Getty Images

In many respects, the current crisis in Thailand is a reflection of centuries-old rivalries. It is rooted in the division between the rural majority in the north and northeast of the country and the urban elite centered in Bangkok. And then there are the deeper geopolitics of Thailand, dating back to the competition between the northern kingdom of Lanna and the southern kingdom of Siam. These underlying factors provide a frame and context for the political and social unrest that has dominated Thailand almost since the inauguration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 (in part a rejection of the former government's handling of the Asian economic crisis), and certainly since his ouster in 2006, which saw in the country's first military coup in nearly 15 years.

In times of economic strength, Thailand has largely managed the underlying differences between the interests of the rural agriculturalists and urban poor on one hand and the interests of the Bangkok business elite and royalists on the other. However, Thailand's economic success also created greater polarization between the groups. The country's favorable geopolitics gave birth to one of the most powerful countries across Southeast Asia and has remained a factor in modern history, as witnessed by the Thai kingdom's ability to resist Western colonization, communist revolution and major internal turmoil. Nonetheless, Thai politics has been fraught with instability and frequent usurpation of power since the country's modern emergence in the early 20th century. By most counts, Thailand has seen 18 coups and coup attempts since 1932, and the current imposition of martial law could rapidly become the 19th.

16th Century Thai Kingdoms

Factors in Thailand's Political Chaos

Complicating matters is the role of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned over Thailand since 1946. In the past, the monarch took a more proactive role in resolving political disputes (most notably in the early 1990s), but he has played a less overt role in recent years. Major concerns about the king's health and the imminent royal succession are kept very secret from the public. Although the king is widely respected and often seen as the guarantor of the country's political stability, his only son's lack of popular support is raising grave concerns about the royal succession, especially in the country's highly polarized political scene. Moreover, it is rumored that the Crown Prince and heir apparent to the throne may have at least some affinity with the interests of the Shinawatra family and thus with parties opposed to the longstanding Bangkok elite. In other words, the central role of the royalty in balancing the rural and urban interests may be fading, making any chance for a resolution more unpredictable.     

Since the 2006 coup, Thailand's enduring political cycle has been characterized by its basic insolubility: The rule of the Bangkok-centered elites, who dominate the country's political economy, is increasingly countered by the rural masses, who hold growing electoral power and seek populist representation. Given Thailand's weak democratic institutions, such irresolvable issues often result in street protests and violence, occasional judicial or military intervention, and frequent exchanges of government control between the two sides. The recent decision by the Constitutional Court to remove caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra reflected the Bangkok elites' long-sought goal of not only eliminating the political influence of Thaksin's family, but staging a campaign for electoral reform that could weaken elected officials deemed unfavorable to the elites' hold on power. The inability to reach a mutually agreeable position has once again put the country at a political impasse. Following months of protests and clashes, both sides consolidated their supporters inside Bangkok, ready for another bout of physical confrontation. Weapons reportedly were found, suggesting to some that any planned violence would exceed that of typical street protests. It was at this stage that the military intervened.    

The Military's Martial Law Declaration

The decision to impose martial law was not taken lightly. The military intervention in 2006 and bloody crackdowns on protests in 2010 did little to endear the armed forces to the populace. Considering the imminent threat of prolonged, country-wide violence, the armed forces likely calculated that the risk of not intervening was perhaps greater in terms of social instability than a partial intervention. 

It is unclear whether the army declared martial law of its own accord or as a result of consultation with the king's Privy Council or the caretaker government. Nor it is clear if the Royal Thai Army will force the acting government out of power. The military has shut down the media centers of both the opposition and the government alike and surrounded camps of supporters on both sides, seemingly in keeping with its proclaimed goal of ensuring peace and perhaps serving as a mediator. The military has also assumed control of the civil security apparatus, taking complete responsibility for security, at least in Bangkok. Thus far, it does not appear that the military is taking any control over the ministries, suggesting that the armed forces are still reticent to launch a full coup

By imposing martial law, the military has given itself space to act in the name of national security. At the same time, it applies pressure to all sides, particularly the Pheu Thai government and its Red Shirt supporters, forcing them to recalibrate their strategies. The interim government has said it wants to hold the next election, currently slated for Aug. 3, sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the opposition is demanding changes to the electoral mechanism to allow a greater number of appointed lawmakers to ameliorate their disadvantage at the polls. The military has said that it will not allow an election to take place if it would likely lead to violence. If the two sides cannot reach a compromise — and they have not since 2006 — the military could soon have little choice but to completely assert itself and appoint a new caretaker government. The military cannot extricate itself easily now that it has declared martial law, but neither does it appear capable of solving the political divide.  

This leaves Thailand possibly facing another few years of political discord. However, though the ongoing crisis is noisy, commercial and civil life in Thailand continues. There have been some changes to financial investment patterns in Thailand over the past decade due to the political uncertainty, but much of that has been less a function of protest than of the government's inability to create and enforce adaptable regulations. However, as Thailand's political chaos endures with no immediate relief in sight, the country is no longer able to take advantage of changing political and economic dynamics in the region.

Two wildcards could prompt a significant shift in the current pattern. The first would be the death or abdication of the king and his replacement by the untested crown prince. It is not clear whether the prince will engender the same level of respect from all sides of the political spectrum, thus reducing his role as a potential mediator. The other is the military's ability to assert itself at time of political instability. In a worst-case scenario, the military will have to consider its response to an insurrection outside the seat of power and how strongly it would be willing to act against rebelling civilians. Civil war is a low probability, but it would be highly significant, and the trigger lays in Thailand's rural countryside, not the capital.

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