Thailand's Chaos: No Way Out

With 21 dead and hundreds of both soldiers and protesters injured, Thailand’s political crisis is threatening to spiral out of control as Red Shirt demonstrators parade through the streets with the bodies of their compatriots killed in the fighting.

Beyond the immediate threat to the premiership of Abhisit Vejajiva and the military and royalist forces who brought him to power, the ongoing crisis is raising the possibility of a major change in Thai society itself. The Red Shirts, initially regarded as deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s janissaries, appear to be evolving away from the billionaire former leader into something more ominous, threatening a structure that has been dominated for decades by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his advisors.

The 83-year-old king, the world’s longest serving monarch, has been seriously ill for months and has only occasionally emerged from the hospital to be photographed looking desperately weak.

If Bhumibol has any power left, said a Bangkok-based observer, now is the time to use it. But, the source said, “The King reportedly asked his advisors if the people would listen to him, and the answer was basically no.”

That is a far cry from 1992, when Bhumibol dramatically changed the course of Thai government and society in the wake of a military coup that ended with widespread shooting by the military as protest and riots spread throughout Bangkok with scores dead.

At that time, the king summoned General Suchinda Kraprayoon, whom the military had anointed as prime minister, and Chamlong Srimuang, the leader of the protesters, to the palace and urged them to resolve the matter peacefully. National television showed the two men on their hands and knees before the king. That snuffed the military’s legitimacy to run the country and ultimately led to the reestablishment of democracy and the introduction of a reform Constitution.

But both Suchinda and Chamlong were fundamentally elite figures. That is not the case among the Red Shirts and it is unclear that bowing before the monarch would work any longer.

It is not just the king’s illness that has diminished his influence. It appears that the royalty may not have the ability to control the situation despite increasing charges of lese majeste brought against anyone deemed to have insulted the monarch. Thousands of critical Web sites have been closed down or blocked (including, on occasion, Asia Sentinel).

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent, is regarded by a wide swath of Thai society as being incapable of leading the country. His much more popular sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn, appears not to want the job if she could conceivably take it, since women have not previously been crowned monarchs.

The king’s privy council, headed by former Prime Minister Prem Tinsunalonda, a former general, has consistently sided with the generals and in fact were almost certainly active in fomenting the 2006 coup that ended Thaksin’s premiership.

In the meantime, Thaksin stands outside the country, possibly having lost control of a movement that began when as premier he instituted a series of programs for the poor in the northeast of the country, including cheap health care and easy credit. He raised considerable alarm among the middle and upper classes of Bangkok, however, who saw him as ominously populist, along with being a ruthless demagogue. Hundreds of “drug peddlers” were murdered by his police in the name of cleaning up the narcotics trade early in his rule and he short-circuited a number of constitutional safeguards.

Although the Red Shirts were previously regarded by the elite as nothing more than rural riff-raff whose way was paid to Bangkok by Thaksin, it is beginning to appear that large numbers of Bangkok’s poor are also increasingly disenchanted with the income disparity in the country and the belief that the royalty and the government have little ambition to do anything about it. The Bangkok Post quoted sociologist Pasuk Phongpaichit saying that the top 20 percent own 69 percent of the country’s assets while the bottom 20 percent only own 1 percent.

Some 42 percent of bank savings are in just 70,000 bank accounts holding more than Bt10 million baht each, making up less than 1 percent of all bank accounts in the coutry, she said. Nearly 20 percent of farming families are landless. The gap between the richest and poorest families, Dr Pasuk said, is 13 times, higher than any other country in the ASEAN region.

The government may be able to hold the line in the short run, but it is unclear what structure would emerge from the current mess. On Sunday, both sides appeared to have backed away in shock from Saturday’s violence. This week is Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year, which is generally a time of fun, water fights and thanksgiving. The farmers have been away from their fields for more than a month in the continuing confrontations in Bangkok.

With the rainy season coming, it is questionable how much hardship the demonstrators will continue to endure, especially in the face of tear gas and bullets, rubber or real. At the moment, the political structure appears to have little alternative to Abhisit, giving him a somewhat better chance of political survival. The military, having reaped the whirlwind from its coup-making, does not appear to want to take over. But the monarchy may well never again enjoy the dominance it once had. It is hard to imagine a new generation of Suchindas and Chamlongs or their republican successors on their knees before the king.