Bangkok looks peaceful from here.
Thailand has been roiling in international media over the past weeks and months. Stories of political upheaval and violence abound. When I landed in Bangkok and as I began to learn the city’s streets I saw little physical evidence of unrest. In fact, the only evidence was the, admittedly large protest camp in Lumpini Park, a central park in Bangkok. I avoided this area, and thus all signs of discontent within the city. As time passed, I took in reports of violence, but it was always in the same areas, which were easily avoidable, and it was generally not too serious. In fact, most protests were organized and announced ahead of time. Thus, when the Army announced martial law on the 20th of May I saw little cause for concern and did the logical thing: I went ice skating.
In order to understand Thailand’s present political difficulties it is helpful to know some history. Until 1932 Thailand was governed by an ancient absolute monarchy. In this year, a coup easily overthrew the monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy with an elected government. A new king was chosen as a figurehead and the new prime minister lasted a year before being overthrown by the military. After an unpopular government cooperated with Japan during WW2, its more popular successor was overthrown in 1947 after being wrongly caught in controversy surrounding the new kings assassination. Time and time again since 1932 Thailand’s government has been overthrown. All in all their have been twelve coups since the establishment of the constitutional monarchy and 20 prime ministers during this ~ 80 year period. The army has played a pivotal role throughout, taking little respite from active participation in governance. It has consistently billed itself as a protector of the people and the economy. At worst, this statement is not untrue, but the consistent coups and some long periods of military rule lead many to question the army’s credibility.
The current unrest began with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. The government that this entrepreneur billionaire formed differed from previous administrations in that its supporters were rurally based and impoverished. This rural population makes up a strong majority of the country, but historically, the educated urban middle class and wealthy royalists have dominated politics. Thaksin’s party has easily won the last five elections in which up to 75% of the population turned out. His opposition, known as Yellow Shirts, is resentful of its lost influence. The supporters of the Shinawatra, known was Red Shirts, government have been made loyal through popular public programs.
Trouble with this government stems from two areas. The first is the aforementioned yellow shirt resentment. The second is corruption. The creation of public programs that benefit the poor, including universal health care, have won popular support, and many programs appear beneficial at face value. The opposition, however, claims that these programs are not what they seem and rather are a scheme to buy votes and reap profits. Indeed, many programs are misguided like a rice buying scheme intended to support farmers, which has lead to a collapse in prices and decline in exports. Interestingly, the foreign media alludes to corruption charges with frequency, but I have not seen much discussion of the problem.
Amid charges of corruption and protests, the constitutional court removed Thaksin from power in 2006. He was forced into exile by an arrest warrant. The court and military worked to enact reforms and held new elections. The majority red shirts easily returned his party to power and in his absence his sister, Yingluck, was made prime minister. Reforms were overturned in short order, Thaksin continued to direct policy from outside the country, and cries of corruption continued. Despite reforms of a court-installed government in 2010, the Shinawatra clan has clung to power. The most recent round of Yellow Shirt protests erupted in October 2013, and since then 25 have been killed in hundreds injured in political actions. In February of this year, one hundred thousand yellow shirts took to the streets to block a vote, which they were expected to lose, and were successful in cancelling its results. Yellow Shirts maintained a street presence in Bangkok thereafter, and indeed it was their encampment that I sought to avoid when I arrived here.
Following escalating violence the constitutional court removed Yingluck from power in early May and on the 20th the army instituted martial law to prevent further protests and violence. Two days later, on the 22nd, the army declared a coup, which I learned of by broadcast in a Bangkok restaurant. The junta has billed itself with leading constitutional reform, jumpstarting the economy, keeping the peace, and creating a path back to democratic rule. The Yellow Shirts view the coup as a victory while the Red Shirts are enraged.
News of the coup caused a stir around the world. From my perspective in Bangkok, the situation is, however, far from dire. For the vast majority of the cities 12 million residents daily life has gone on unchanged. I have received messages of concern from abroad, and my colleagues have reacted emotionally to the days vocabulary. The words coup, junta, and martial law, bring thoughts of violence, but to be fair, these colleagues view a big weekend in Bangkok as staying in bed and drinking homemade cocktails. I would hazard that they are being oversensitive. Walking the streets and watching faces, I have seen no sign of immediate concern. My boss, who was here for the last coup, owns local property, and spends significant time in Thailand, sees no safety concern. With a bit of caution, my experience leads me to agree.
During this time I have not had regular access to news, but the international reports that have reached me are disappointing. From my perspective, the reports have been incomplete and to some extent biased. They focus heavily on violence, and instinctively write the coup off as a negative event. They do not provide sufficient discussion of history and context. More recently, I have read some good and thorough reports from BBC and The New York Times, which have influenced my opinions. My initial sentiments, based on local media and discussions that I have held in Bangkok, were in favor of the yellow shirts and the coup. I wanted to believe that the army had the best interests of the country in mind, and the initial actions did not necessarily suggest otherwise.
As time has passed the junta has become more belligerent. Rounds of arrests now extend beyond opposition politicians and protestors, to include members of the media and even dissident academics. Strong steps have been taken in controlling media, both traditional and social. International calls for new elections have been met with statements that the journey back to democracy will take a year or more. Well-written analyses of these events suggest that the junta believes stronger actions are necessary this time around in order to prevent the policy reversals that took place after 2006. While scrubbing corruption from the Thai political system is noble, these actions, whether misguided or sinister, are wrong. The junta overthrew a popularly elected government and is now seeking to change political opinion by force. If continued, these actions will build rather than quash unrest.
International government responses, as with early media reports, seem aloof from my perspective. The US State Department has stuck with its traditional speaking points championing democracy and criticized the junta without discussion of context. The US immediately suspended military aid and considered cancelling joint military exercises. The state department travel warning was also updated to suggest reconsidering all non-essential travel to Thailand. This idea is prudent, but it should be noted that reports of three deaths in a Bangkok protest camp ran back to back with reports of a senseless shooting in California that killed six. Once again, I’ll repeat that I feel no less safe here than I do at home in the US.
Thailand bills itself as a nation of happiness. I certainly noticed the ubiquitous Thai smile when I arrived in Bangkok two months ago. I would claim that Thai’s are kinder and happier than the global average. During my stay, I have, however, read several accounts that cause me to question this sentiment. The first was of cocaine trafficker Warren Fellows, who in his book, The Damage Done, recounts the experience of 12 years in a Bangkok prison. His vivid descriptions of the subsequently reformed Thai penal system were the most graphic and horrid visions of torture and violence that I have read, seen, or encountered anywhere. He summed up his experience by claiming that Thai’s are the most patient people on earth, but when patience runs thin, they are the most sadistic people on earth. Another account came from a historical biography of Jim Thompson, Bangkok’s most famous expatriate resident. The story included a discussion of Bangkok’s politics from the 1932 coup through the late 60’s as a backdrop for the Thompson story. The descriptions of violence during the early coups, including the systematic execution of political dissidents and their cover up, were again horrific. These perspectives lead me to question the Junta’s intentions; given this history it is possible that something more sinister is afoot.
I am still driven by intellectual similarities and a dislike of corruption to believe in the cause of the Yellow Shirts. I hope for Thailand’s sake that the junta’s intentions are pure. Future politics will be tricky given the popularity of the overthrown government. This clash of a just cause and anti-democratic actions leaves me ultimately unsure of whom to side with. It will be interesting to watch as the situation develops. I’ll be watching from afar, as I begin my journey back to the US tomorrow.