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Thailand's Multiple Revolts
The spectre of civil war is now routinely discussed as a possible outcome to Thailand's now-systemic political and social crisis. This is an improbable outcome in the current phase of the protest cycle given the widely differing and frequently opposed expectations, grievances and fears that underpin the motives and issues driving the country's protracted political instability.
Thailand is not simply experiencing a binary struggle between pro- and anti-government forces but is in the midst of a complex series of revolts that now involve much of the population and most institutions. The depth and force of commitment may vary, but disentangling the now exposed divisions between classes, regions and within key organisation cannot be dealt with through a superficial compromise between already discredited political leaders
The crisis, which began for the more perceptive members of the country's traditional elite in January 2001 with Thaksin Shinawatra's first election victory, now defines Thailand's political and social system.
Thaksin's massive popular reaffirmation in the February 2005 polls, an existential threat to Thailand's established order, ignited a series of revolts that now engulf the country. These largely passive rebellions are largely concealed by the noisier narrative that Thailand's crisis is a simple struggle between the impoverished, neglected and marginalised countryside seeking redress from the wealthy, distant and disdainful city.
The now familiar colour-coded ur-revolt – reds, yellows, with occasional sightings of blues, pinks, as well as the ever-present green of the military, the mysterious and murderous ‘blacks' and the growing involvement of saffron-clad Buddhist monks – give an impression of order and symmetry. In reality, the Thai crisis more closely represents at its present stage the ‘million mutiny' phase of social and political upheaval rather than the coherent coalescence and radicalisation required to move general disorder into nation-breaking anarchy.
Rather than presenting unified ideological or structural fronts, the organic components of the Thai drama have often conflicted beliefs and sentiments towards the other players and within their own groups.
The professional military leadership may, for reasons of conviction and ambition, be firmly aligned to maintaining the status quo. The army, in particular, is traditionally in a near-permanent state of revolt against any civilian government – which includes Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's creaking administration that owes its position to military leverage. The military is also divided within, with many senior officers seeking advantage over intra-service rivals while doubting the willingness of enlisted personnel to act decisively against their own class.
These competing tensions are regarded as responsible for the army's reluctance to support successive governments in restoring order – either against the pro-establishment yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) when they occupied Bangkok for months in 2008 or now against the red version of this similar strategy.
The much reviled police are, by contrast, seen as supporting the Red Shirts – no doubt partly due to Thaksin's links with the force that he served for many years, but also because of the animosity between the police and the military. The police, therefore, have frequently failed to act against the Red Shirts out of solidarity and against the well-connected yellows out of professional reticence and the fear of personal retribution.
Even the monkhood is riven between what many junior clergy appear to view as the contradiction between Buddhism's high status at the apogee of Thailand's elite pantheon and its mission to bring succor to country's most disadvantaged. This raises the possibility that some of the clergy may take to the streets with reds, much as Buddhist monks did in Burma during the doomed 2007 anti-government protests.
The reds' appeal to the rural population of the northern and northeastern provinces reflects economic, class, social and even ethnic divisions between the hardscrabble lives most lead, in contrast to the reality and perceptions of those in distant Bangkok. Ideological mobilisation may be evolving, but the principal catalysts for revolt are for improved personal outcomes based on more stable income, affordable health and education provision and freedom from usury and indebtedness.
Assuring such expectations - raised and partially met by Thaksin - is the most readily achievable resolution at an economic and administrative level, but opposition to such largesse from the country's still narrow tax base stirs counter- revolts.
The yellows – created, funded and protected by the military, the aristocracy, bureaucracy and largely ethnic Chinese urban professional and commercial classes – represent the status quo and reflect an unwillingness to share status and wealth with the masses. This group forced Thaksin and his successor governments from power by staging a protracted revolt in 2008 that, unlike the reds, drew no warnings that the country faced civil war.
The unintended consequence of the Yellow Shirt uprising was to produce an operational and moral template for the reds to follow and use to claim the protection of precedence. Until the first fatalities occurred in Bangkok in April, the red case was beginning to receive more favorable – or at least sympathetic – coverage in the mainstream Thai media, revealing conflicted opinions within the elite.
The ‘royal institution' – the respectful term used to refer to the monarchy – is at the heart of the present national melee. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, hospitalised since September last year, made a rare public comment in late April in which he repeated a message to the nation's judges to do their work well.
The king's failure to deliver even a runic phrase or comment that could be directly linked to the present crisis and serve as a keystone in forcing compromise between his divided subjects has disappointed and confused many Thais and foreign observers. However, the king's call to uphold the law may also be interpreted as a warning to the country that without a recognizably equitable legal system Thailand faces a future dictated by the arbitrary use of power and force, with the unspoken implication that it will be unmediated by a benign monarch.
Such après moi le deluge sentiments and the king's removal from worldly events – which may be viewed as a regal strike - can be added to the numberless revolts that now characterise Thai society.
This maze of passive and active revolts complicates any resolution to the crisis. Millions of Thais have incrementally abandoned or ignored the bonds – or shackles – that had traditionally defined relations between classes and within the country's key institutions. In the absence of any new charismatic leader emerging - Thaksin is extremely unlikely to return to Thailand and prosper - who can complete either the red agenda of mass democracy or enforce the yellow intent to reserve political power for a small elite, Thailand risks slipping into an era of sullen apathy that leaves grievances to fester and petty ambitions to flourish. The response to such a period, which may well combine Burma's ruthless authoritarianism with Cambodia's past displays of hysterical nativism, may serve as the precursor for a coherent populist revolt that could violently shatter Thailand's mythic national consensus for generations.
G.M. Greenwood is an Associate with Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong-based political and security risk consultancy.