Mislabeling the Thai conflict

By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla

For the last six months, the fabled “land of smiles” has been a land of urban warfare and sullen politics. It has conveniently been seen as a playout of two sets of forces with distinct labels, even colors. The Yellow Shirts have represented the rich Bangkok elite and the long revered king, Bhumipol; the Red Shirts were stand-ins for the ousted premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist politician who built a base on the backs of programmes for the poor concentrated in Isan, the Northeast region that has historically been the least developed.

In fact this is worse than a simplification; it’s a distortion of what has been occurring. We may concede up front that it has become, as William Klausner, a veteran analyst of Thailand has argued, a “zero-sum game,” and one in which the so-called elite have yielded little ground intellectually or practically to its opponents. Many have not unreasonably urged on the elite a little contrition for the wealth of Bangkok — especially in contrast to Isan. But the elite reasonably argues that all the new wealth — including that bringing schools, roads, and fresh water to a previously desolate Isan — was generated through the policies and success of the Bangkok elite.

In comes a fabulously rich politician, onetime police general, Thaksin, whose fortune came from the cell-phone revolution, attempting to build his Bangkok elite position on the back of the dissatisfaction in Isan. He won a huge victory in 2001 and immediately began showing his hand—crushing opposition and overwhelming the media. But he unleashed forces that would take the decade to put down. 

By now, though, Red Shirts have as their banner the growing inequality between Bangkok and Isan — not their now magic-carpet leader, who travels the world looking for visas and digging from his diminishing fortune to fund his allies back home. This has included guns and ammunition. Equally, the Yellow Shirts are less about the monarchy and the privileges the elite enjoys in the city. It’s about the whole Thai project — of lifting the kingdom to the level of a prosperous, even rich, and influential society. Nor is it the division between military and civilian, a distinction barely visible in the Thai historical consciousness. In any case, it was in fact the military, before any others, who began the development of the region, even if it was more about the then ominous communist threat in that poverty-stricken province.

What in the Red Shirt case has substance is the still-growing inequality in the kingdom, a feature of all rapidly growing societies, the more so in Thailand given its extremely rapid development at the end of the last century and steady growth since the 1950s. But not enough has been done to even out inequality in Thailand – the results of such spectacular growth. That’s how Thaksin built his base — on cheap medical care and cash loans to villages. But it’s hardly as if this was new; infrastructure, irrigation, hospitals and schools have been going up since the 1950s. Isan is hardly recognizable now.

But in some ways the essence of Thailand hasn’t changed. A new army commander — traditionally the ultimate source of power in the kingdom — General Chayuth Chan-ocha has risen the ranks faster than anyone in living memory. He has made clear that he will protect the monarchy, which undoubtedly means that he will protect the transition to the wildly unpopular crown prince — in part because he knows that the monarchy will not have the present centrality after the passing of the great King Bhumipol.

Thailand has grown beyond that. It probably for a while won’t have grown beyond the enormous power of the new army commander, but at least he’s made a most important point. The issue is not between red and yellow shirts; it’s about whether Thailand will once again move fast toward its long-term goal, of not only a land of smiles but a rapidly growing one of prosperity everywhere.

The problem for Prayuth is that in drawing a line in the sand around the monarchy, to use the words of Thitinan Pongsudhirak, possibly the best political analyst in the kingdom, the general could bring down the house — the house of Chakri, the ruling dynasty. For it is not apparent that the crown prince, known for a very unThai style of life, will realize that the perks of the monarchy, that his father earned from a life of dedication and diligence, will hardly be available to him. His enemies are too legion even for as powerful a man as Prayuth to protect him from them. The biggest problems of Thailand have perhaps only been postponed.

Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in Dasmariñas City, Philippines. W. Scott Thompson served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.

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