Thailand’s Crisis Threatens to Spiral out of Control

With at least 20 killed and hundreds injured, Thailand’s five-year political crisis threatens to spiral completely out of control as Red Shirt demonstrators parade the bodies of their dead compatriots through Bangkok's streets.

The chaos is not just undermining the premiership of Abhisit Vejajiva, who remained defiant after the deaths, but also the military and royalist forces who ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup and his allies two years later. The Red Shirts, known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are demanding the dissolution of the lower house of parliament and immediate elections. They have escalated their tactics in recent days, prompting the government to call a state of emergency.

The Red Shirts, initially regarded as Thaksin’s vehicle, appear to have been evolving away from the billionaire former leader, however, into something more ominous that could well radically change Thai society, threatening the structure that has been dominated by the revered King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his advisors. The 82-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 the Thai government in the wake of a 1991 military coup that ended almost a year later with widespread shooting by soldiers, leaving scores dead. The king summoned General Suchina Krapyayoon, 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.

It is not just the king’s illness that has diminished his influence. The tactics to get rid of Thaksin -- coup, party dissolutions, criminal lawsuits, airport seizures -- appears to have caught up with the powers that be. The Red Shirts refer to them collectively as the "elite," and they want the double standards in society changed. That doesn't bode well for an institution undertaking its biggest change in six decades with succession looming. The crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is regarded by a wide swathe 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, has consistently sided with the generals and in fact were almost certainly active in fomenting the 2006 coup that ended Thaksin’s premiership. The Red Shirts have relentlessly attacked Prem and presumably would continue to do so.

In the meantime, Thaksin stands outside the country, possibly having lost control of his movement. As premier, he instituted a series of programs for the poor in Thailand's northeast, including cheap health care. He raised considerable alarm among the middle and upper classes of Bangkok, however, who saw him as too 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.

Although the Red Shirts were previously regarded as nothing more than rural poor from Northeastern Thailand whose way was paid to Bangkok by the former prime minister, it is beginning to appear that large numbers of poor among Bangkok’s 15 million residents are increasingly disenchanted with the income disparity in the country, as well as the belief that the royalty and the ruling government have little ambition to do anything about it. The Bangkok Post, quoting Pasuk Phongpaichit in a speech at the the King Prachadhipok Institute conference, pointed out that the top 20 percent own 69 percent of the country’s assets while the bottom 20 percent only own 1 percent of the assets.

Some 42 percent of bank savings are in just 70,000 bank accounts holding more than Bt10 million baht, making up less than 1 percent of all bank accounts in the coutry, she said. Nearly 20 percent of farming families are landless, with 1-1.5 million farming families are tenants or struggling with insufficient land. The top 20 percent of earners take more than 50 percent of gross domestic product while the bottom 20 percent take only 4 percent. 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. On Sunday, both sides appeared to have backed away in shock from Saturday’s violence. The soldiers returned to their barracks. This week is Songkran, the traditional 3-day Thai New Year holiday that in actuality will last all week. The farmers have been away from their fields for more than a month in the continuing confrontations in Bangkok, and planting season is afoot.

With the rainy season coming, it is questionable how much hardship the demonstrators will want to continue to endure, especially in the face of clouds of tear gas. At the moment, the political structure appears to have little alternative to Abhisit, giving him a somewhat better chance of 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 had when it could order Suchinda and Chamlong to their knees.