Introduction: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

For decades, Thailand has been entangled in a cycle of political turmoil that oscillates between elections, street protests, and coups both military and judicial. Although this dynamic has dominated in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, what we term the “wheel of crisis” has increased its rotational speed since the 1997 Asian economic collapse. Our introduction offers orientation for those unfamiliar with the dizzying course of Thai politics since the turn of the twenty-first century. The pieces that follow examine the persistent formations that drive this cycle, as well as conditions that might radically alter Thailand’s recursive historical trajectory.

In many contemporary accounts, the current crisis begins and ends with the figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. But in fact the recent coup of May 2014 and the social dynamics that undergird it have roots in the massive political and economic transformations of the 1980s and 1990s. During those decades, Thailand’s economy expanded faster than that of any other nation in the world. As the country’s economic base shifted from rural regions to the metropolitan capital, Bangkok, the country’s social and political life shifted as well. When the Thai economy collapsed in 1997, rural voters, urban middle class, and traditional elites became unsatisfied with governmental recovery efforts. Thaksin—a telecom billionaire and former prime minister—did not create such conditions, but he capitalized on them. In January 2001, he won national elections with a solid majority and an ambitious plan to reform the nation.

Thaksin’s electoral success was based on mixing uncompromising leadership with widely popular welfare policies and market-oriented economic schemes. Once in office, his government was plagued by accusations of corruption and serious civil rights violations. The latter included a draconian “war on drugs,” harsh governing of the Muslim-majority deep south, and a broad offensive against NGO organizers and civil society activists. Nevertheless, Thaksin’s popularity remained strong, and his government became the first in Thai history to complete its entire four-year electoral mandate.

Soon after his landslide re-election in 2005, opposition to Thaksin organized as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Their unlikely coalition included conservative royalists, NGO activists, state-enterprise unionists, prominent public intellectuals, and middle- and upper-middle-class reformists. Dressed in royal yellow and headed by a former business associate of Thaksin, the so-called PAD Yellow Shirts began large street demonstrations in Bangkok in 2006. Pressured by these protests, Thaksin dissolved parliament as a plebiscite for his premiership. The opposition Democrat Party, aligned with the PAD, boycotted subsequent elections, which Thaksin won handily. Prompted by King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s declaration that “a one candidate situation is undemocratic,” the Thai Constitutional Court invalidated the election and scheduled yet another vote for October. That never happened. On September 19, 2006, while Thaksin was in New York City to address the United Nations, military tanks rolled into Bangkok. The junta was soon endorsed by the king, ending Thailand’s most sustained period of democratic governance.

Following the 2006 military takeover, Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, was dissolved and two hundred of its politicians were banned from politics for five years. A new constitution was put into place, and fresh elections were held in 2007. In quick succession, the People’s Power Party (PPP), a proxy for Thaksin’s now disbanded Thai Rak Thai party, was elected. The spring and fall of 2008 bore eerie resemblance to 2006: the PAD reemerged, taking over key public spaces, including the Government House and Suvarnaphumi International Airport; the judiciary intervened twice, removing two PPP prime ministers and ultimately disbanding the party altogether; through a parliamentary coalition, the Democrat party assumed power at the end of 2008, installing Abhisit Vejjajiva as its prime minister.

Thaksin supporters started to organize themselves. Known as the Red Shirts, this diverse coalition included Thaksin loyalists, urban and rural poor, and people from newly middle-class families in the provinces. They found common ground in support of Thaksin and his agenda, and in their growing frustrations with having their votes nullified. Throughout 2009 they organized mass protests in Bangkok and around the country advocating for new general elections. In April 2009, they caused the cancellation of the ASEAN Summit in Pattaya and blocked central traffic nodes throughout Bangkok with flaming tires and natural gas-powered taxis.

When the Army cleared that round of protest, the Red Shirts reorganized, especially in their northern and northeastern strongholds. In March 2010, a revitalized movement took over the center of Bangkok. Protesters demanded new elections; their focus extended beyond Thaksin to encompass questions of inequality, democracy, and citizenship more generally. This occupation lasted three months and was put to an end by a military crackdown, which left ninety-one dead and thousands injured. In 2011, new elections were held. As in every popular election since 2001, the party allied with Thaksin won. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, took control of the government.

An attempt to pass an amnesty bill, unpopular across the political spectrum, ended the relative stability of Yingluck’s first two years in the premiership. The Yellow Shirts rebranded themselves with the red, white, and blue Thai flag as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and organized massive protests in Bangkok. They called themselves “whistleblowers” and promised to “shut down Bangkok to restart Thailand.” As in the past, the PDRC plan involved an appointed council of “good people,” who would spearhead the reform process and also determine when the larger populace might be morally ready to return to democracy.

And here the cycle revolves anew: once again, the protest forced Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call for a snap election. Once again, the Democrat Party boycotted the election. Once again, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party won elections amidst continuing protests and sporadic violence on both sides, this time claiming twenty-eight lives. The judiciary once again intervened, removing Yingluck from office. Two weeks later, on May 14, 2014, the Army once again staged a coup, putting power in the hands of Army Commander-in-Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The military then began shoring up its legitimacy by silencing its critics and “returning happiness to the people,” which consisted of giving away free movie tickets, organizing festivals, and broadcasting the World Cup. By the end of August, Prayuth was unanimously “elected” by the legislature. Once again, democracy was deferred.

All of this cyclicality is underscored by tremendous structural transformation. In many ways democracy and capitalism have radically altered Thailand’s social hierarchy. This transformation, combined with an aging monarch and an unpopular crown prince, raises important questions about the basis of political legitimacy more generally. Thus, at the same time that much of the population has deepened its embrace of democratic principles, Thai politics itself seems to have become ever more unmoored from ideological roots or principles. These structural conditions, combined with the deeply repressive approach of this military government, mark Thailand’s present as troubled and its future uncertain.

The pieces in this collection do not prognosticate or offer a single portrait of the current political moment. Instead, they provoke scrutiny of underlying conditions. Furthermore, this Hot Spot seeks to open the Thai situation to broader discussions about the fate and nature of democracy. We hone in on a number of themes, including the relationship between Thailand’s legal and political structures and the coup (Section I); the interrelationship between social division and citizenship (Section II); the ways in which activism and civil society can turn against democracy (Section III); and the broader structural questions raised by Thailand’s wheel of crisis (Section IV). While the authors are uncertain about how this cycle of turmoil will end, we agree that the military’s effort to transcend politics and “return happiness to the people” is unlikely to stop the wheel from spinning.