Can Thais Find Peaceful Reform?

Mass political uprisings continue to ring the globe—Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Nigeria and Thailand at the moment—and as always a big question is whether the political ferment will culminate in widespread violence.

The situation in Bangkok is probably of most interest to Westerners because of travel familiarity—its airports are the busiest such international hubs in the world. The street protests for democracy have easy appeal, with a twist that they oppose government, military and crown at once. There is historic reason for pessimism that they can peacefully succeed, but great potential payoff if they do, given the surrounding region’s economic clout and anxious autocrats.

Demonstrations in the Ratchaprasong district focus primarily on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a sometimes clownish hard-liner who came to power by coup but doffed his general’s stripes for a manipulated election in 2019. Opponents want him to resign ahead of new, more fair elections. He has, for the moment, backed away from a full crackdown while the largely-compliant legislature grappled with the popular challenge in special session this week.

But Prayuth fronts for larger, historic forces of Thai domination—the military and royalty. The premier’s old comrades in uniform have shown little reluctance to play the heavies over decades of skirmishes with dissidents. Royalty, however, took a more benevolent tone during the long rule of Bhumibol Adulyadej.  Since his death in 2016, though, his son the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has lost the halo of veneration. He spends much of his life in Europe as what the persistently critical Economist magazine calls “a playboy who has churned through four wives.” Now his subjects—or many of them, anyway–want his powers reined in along with his protectors’.

Although Thailand has a core of business-oriented democrats, the main threat to the ruling class in this era has come from populists supported by the rural poor. For a while in the early 2000s, they gained power under Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a wealthy tycoon. He was forced out and went into exile to avoid prosecution; at one point his sister stood in as prime minister but Prayuth’s junta put a stop to that. (She fled the country, too.)

The Thaksin allies are still around, but have been supplanted in opposition by the progressive forces of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 41-year-old business magnate, and the Ratchaprasong crowds are said to angle for him.  Formally, however, their demands are only for a government makeover and limits on the crown.  Seems that anyone taking the mantle ahead of dissolving  the current regime would just become a marked man. Meantime, there is the prospect of idle discord.

As protests mounted, Prayuth declared and later lifted a state of emergency. Of course, Covid-19 provides any strongman with a ready weapon of suppression. But idealized Thai culture (“land of smiles”) bids for at least the pretext of civility, even as there is little likelihood of political finality. Prayuth made minor concessions as the legislature adjourned–his cabinet will set up a “reconciliation committee”–but is not going anywhere.

The playboy king, meanwhile, has claimed all the huge resources of the Crown Property Bureau, so even as Thailand’s economy founders (remember that travel is a linchpin), he can bide his time through long stretches of repression. But domestic and international business interests might wish for a path to peaceful order, whatever that would be.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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