Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crisis in Thailand

I have been incredibly lax lately in reporting on Thailand, something that I used to do quite a bit. For the progressive blogosphere, southeast Asia is a pretty big blank spot and I occasionally try to fill that.

Anyway, as you may have read, Thailand is a severe political crisis. This has been going on for 2 years now, but in recent days the crisis has severely escalated. Anti-government protestors have taken over Bangkok's international airport, crippling the nation's economy, especially its vital tourist industry. The military is calling on the prime minister to step down. For the first time, this crisis seems to threaten large-scale violence.

Here's the basic issue. To be incredibly simplistic, Thailand is 2 nations. One is the urban elite and growing middle class who have gotten rich through the globalized economy in the last 30 years. Two is the traditional farms and small towns outside of the capital who remain mired in poverty. To be fair, there probably is 3 Thailands, with the restless Muslim south, but we'll put that aside for the time being. The large rural population controls electoral politics. They are huge supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Two years ago, the military overthrew him in a coup supported by the middle class. Thaksin was both corrupt and democratic. The corruption allegations are pretty bad and almost certainly true. On the other hand, Thaksin was elected and his support remained strong. The military was unable to consolidate power. In elections held last year, Thaksin's party again took over, this time under the leadership of Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother in law.

The middle class sees no path to power except the military. They have almost no commitment to democracy. Many are calling for a new voting system that gives poor people less representation in government. I have had several conversations with middle-class Thais where I have heard them wish they had a Singapore-like dictatorship. Thailand has a long history of military control backed up by the all-important palace. The king is old and sick and I understand that his successor is hostile to democracy, giving the middle class and military support in their struggle for power.

I don't know what's going to happen. I suspect Somchai will in fact step down or be forced out and again the military will take control for a short time. But short of an oppressive military dictatorship, which I believe won't happen because of Thailand's role as a U.S. ally in the region and because so much of their economy revolves around tourism, I don't see the middle class-military alliance holding. I don't see a lot of reason to think the military and middle class will create a more successful government than they did two years ago, particularly given the hostility they face from the majority of the country's population. The military did a poor job of dealing with the Muslim separatists in the South, had no coherent plan for governing, and were inept at running the government.

Moreover, I don't see Thailand coming to any sort of stability anytime soon. Corruption is rampant throughout Thai society, including among the holier-than-thou elite. They are upset, not because of corruption, but because the other side's corruption is more effective than theirs. The poor have embraced democracy while the rich are rejecting it. The monarchy is going to play a big role here, as is the United States and other western nations. We need to make it clear that democracy must be respected in Thailand and that there will be consequences to a coup.

If the government does want to stay in power, violence is probably necessary. Somchai has shown remarkable restraint in not using violence to open the airport and arrest ringleaders. Perhaps this is because he fears the army. But the threat of violence has to be there, particularly when the other side embraces it. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has promised that his military would not use violence against the Bolivian people. That's a good thing in theory, but it has also emboldened the right-wing opposition into using extreme tactics, knowing that they are safe from any real crackdown. Somchai either has to use violence and risk being forced out or step down on his own. I'm glad I don't have to make this decision.

As always, Shawn Crispin at Asia Times Online has much more.