Thailand’s Geographic Divide Also Defines Bangkok

The clock is ticking in Thailand over anti-government protests, with the fabric of the nation itself seemingly in question. The confrontation has reached a stage where some may even begin to question the nation’s presumed homogeneity, long regarded as Thailand’s greatest strength.

Every day it seems to get worse. On Monday, the government announced it would forcibly boot protesters out of government offices within 72 hours under an emergency decree. On Sunday, advanced polling for the February 2 snap elections was widely disrupted by the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee and gunshots claimed the life of a PDRC leader in Bangkok, bringing the death toll to ten since the attempt to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office began in November.

What does the seemingly intractable crisis between the forces unleashed by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, beginning with his first election as prime minister in 2001 and worsened by the 2006 coup that drove him from office, and his enemies among the Bangkok elites, royalists and others say about the country’s presumed “Thainess”?

Certainly by Southeast Asian standards, the Malay minority in three southern provinces and a few hill peoples in the north and west, have been relatively small problems historically for a nation that otherwise has one religion, broadly one language and one king. Indeed the dominance of the nation/religion/king ideology has been so strong as to make accommodation with the Malays seemingly impossible, leaving a festering insurgency to continue for well over a decade.

No solid Bangkok For sure, the south and north and northeast fall easily into a geopolitical split, with hill tribes and other minorities in the north and Muslim Malays in the south. But the story in the densely populated regions around Bangkok and in the center of the country – the supposed heartland of anti-Thaksin sentiment and the Democrat Party  is far more complicated, and not very encouraging for the Democrats.

While the common impression is that royalists and traditional elites dominate the region, the fact is that the nation’s capital of more than 10 million people is not so simple. The Democrats may face nearly as much trouble in the capital as they do in Isaan, the rural northeast, due to social change. Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, may reap more of a whirlwind from urban dwellers than he realizes

The 2011 elections that brought Yingluck to power as a stand-in for her exiled older brother, may be regarded as the nearest proxy as popular views since then are more likely to have hardened than changed. Though in electoral terms the Democrats control the central core of Bangkok and, in effect, most central institutions of government – the upper bureaucracy, judiciary etc.  one-third of Bangkok’s parliamentary seats, mostly in the east of the city, are held by Thaksin supporters.

When it comes to the newer urban areas surrounding Bangkok and along the eastern seaboard, the story is totally different from most foreign perceptions. Democrats are hard to find in these relatively new industrialized areas. For instance the provinces of Pathum Thani, Samut Prakhan, Nonthaburi and Ayudhya are almost exclusively Red-Shirt territory, to use the color code for Thaksin’s supporters.

Likewise all the seats in Chonburi on the eastern seaboard, where huge numbers of Japanese-owned factories are located; Laem Chabang port and the resort city of Pattaya are in the hands of a local party run by a bigwig sympathetic to Thaksin. In other central provinces, such as Nakhon Pathom, third parties, not Democrats, predominate.

Clearly migration from the north and northeast has left a huge mark on the politics of the central and metropolitan regions. These voters may combine a regional sympathy for the Thaksin camp with class resentment against the presumptions of the Bangkok elite.

No easy coup way out In sheer numbers, the 2011 election also surely understates the numbers of Thaksin supporters in the Bangkok region who might be mobilized if the current political mess becomes a catastrophic open confrontation. Many who work in urban areas have maintained their voting registration in their home villages in the north.

The reality is that for all the apparent geographical divisions in Thai politics, 40 years of industrialization and development have transformed the country’s economic geography due to the lure of the prosperous provinces around the capital and adjoining the Gulf of Thailand. This has not necessarily strengthened the grip of the Bangkok power holders, especially in the face of the massive challenge of Thaksin’s machine. Indeed, in the longer run it has probably undermined their position, which helps explain why the military now recognizes that old-fashioned coups are no longer easy to execute.

Two elements come into this. One is the number of Red Shirts who can be brought onto the streets of Bangkok. They are there already. They hardly need busing in from Isaan.

The second – and this is a fundamental change – may be that a coup in Bangkok would not settle the issue as was the case in the past. Such is the strength of Thaksin’s support that it is now possible to imagine the elected authorities in Chiang Mai or some other cities refusing to recognize a government installed by the military or the possible machinations of the judiciary.

Remembering Lanna It seems possible that regional resentment of Bangkok and 150 years of expanding royal and bureaucratic power could come to the fore over the current impasse. It is now often forgotten, even in Thailand let alone by foreigners, that the North was once the separate Lanna kingdom, as powerful as that of Ayudhya to the south and with its own language and writing system. After a period of Burmese occupation it split into two smaller kingdoms, Chiang Mai and Lampang, which became loose vassals of Bangkok. But it was only after the opening of Siam to western commerce in the 1850s and British deals with Chiang Mai to exploit teak forests that Bangkok sought direct control.

Likewise, a large part of the Northeast, on the west bank of the Mekong, was long part of the Lao kingdom and to this day Isaan maintains language and cultural traits which its shares with the lowland people of Laos, while elsewhere in Isaan Khmer ties run deep.

For sure, modern Thailand has a level of economic integration that makes a regional break-up almost impossible. Nonetheless, deep regional sentiments, and memories of great Lanna, Lao and Khmer kingdoms, can play a role in bolstering the sentiments of Thaksin’s legions in the huge areas of Thailand where they dominate – and also in a place like Bangkok where many of them now live.