Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Layman's Explanation of Thailand's Political Situation

Bangkok, of late, has been jarred by political turmoil, and I’ve received a handful of emails inquiring after my safety. In response to these missives, I’m dusting off the keyboard to offer an appraisal of the situation. (Since conditions here are evolving rapidly, this post may well be obsolete by the time you read it; I've already had to revise it extensively in response to sudden developments.) Hopefully those friends worried about my well-being will be mollified, those who’ve been incommunicado will remain silently sanguine, and both groups will have a better idea of what's happening in my adoptive nation.


Thailand is dominated by two political parties: the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts. The Reds are, almost universally, poor, rural, agrarian – a sort of pastoral proletariat. The Yellows are urban (read: Bangkokian) and wealthy and white-collar*. The conflict, then, isn’t just Red v. Yellow, but Rich v. Poor, and Bangkok v. The Rest of Thailand.

* Thai political parties’ compositions seem to me much less diverse than American parties’. Within America’s Democratic Party, for example, limousine liberals from New England rub ideological elbows with poor blacks in Oakland; the Republican Party unites even stranger bedfellows (which births logical fallacies like uninsured Texans universally despising health care reform). Thailand’s parties, perhaps due to the country’s comparative ethnic homogeneity, aren’t nearly so jumbled in constitution; so, while the above descriptions might be overly simplified, I think they’re apt enough.

Until recently, Thailand’s Prime Minister was a man named Taksin (like Cher, he needs no second name), a businessman and politician as Red as they come. During his stint in office, Taksin passed a litany of policies that benefitted his poor, rural constituency: for example, he dramatically improved access to affordable health care (the baseline cost for a visit to a Thai hospital is something like $1.50), and granted farmers generous subsidies. As PM he was, by all accounts, a champion of the lower classes.

But the primary beneficiary of Taksin’s term was – surprise, surprise – Taksin. Prior to becoming PM he owned Shin Satellite Corporation, a company that builds (you were expecting?) satellites. Instead of dropping this conflict-of-interest business holding upon taking office, Taksin (perhaps taking his cue from Dick Cheney) remained head of Shin, and proceeded to shamelessly line his own pockets. To name one infraction among many, he granted a sizable loan to Myanmar on Thailand’s behalf, expressly so that Myanmar could purchase goods from Shin. The upshot was that Taksin, who’d entered office a billionaire, was soon able to stick the prefix multi- at the front of that sobriquet*.

*One of the stranger things about the Color War for me personally is that it’s very hard to know whom to support – a weird feeling, after years of loathing an irrefutably despicable Republican nemesis. My instinct is to side with the poor farmers and cheap health insurance, and thus the Red Shirts; but my other equally reflexive instinct is to side against corrupt politicians, and thus against Taksin, whom I find slimy and exploitative. This fight isn’t being waged under familiar terms, and so I’ve stayed more or less unaffiliated, in the vain hope that one party or another will seize the moral high ground. At first it was thrilling, being here during an epoch of percolating political change, and I was pulling hard for the Reds; but since those heady early days my esteem for them has dissipated, and as the death toll has mounted I just find myself wishing that the struggle would end. I’m basically a glorified tourist here anyway, and my interest in Thai politics is dilettantish, and to choose and staunchly support a side when I’m so poorly informed and have so little at stake feels frivolous.

Taksin, looking as ruthlessly savvy and politically calculating as ever.

Taksin didn’t see his term through, however, because, like many a corrupt and autocratic ruler before him, he was victimized by a coup. I’m a little hazy on the details of how/why this happened, but basically the Thai army swept in and bloodlessly removed Taksin from power*, installing as PM the mellifluously named Abhisit Vejjajiva, who continues to rule, albeit shakily, to this day.

*The deposed Taksin escaped Thailand, and, after an ill-fated stop in Cambodia, is floating around in exile. I’m not too certain of where he’s squirreled away – Dubai, I think.

But though Taksin is out of sight, he is by no means out of mind. Far from it: the Yellow Shirt govt has prosecuted the banished ex-PM vigorously, first indicting him on charges of corruption and then, in mid-March, confiscating his ill-gotten gains. Forty-six billion Bath (Thai currency unit) worth of gains, to be precise, or $1.5 billion. Before you bend bow across a tiny violin in lamentation of Taksin’s loss, bear in mind that he still has over a billion dollars in the bank, and is probably sunning himself on a palm tree-shaped island or coasting down an indoor ski hill or freebasing caviar or whatever extravagant things people do with themselves in Dubai.

And this is why Taksin gives me the creeps: while he’s enjoying steaks and blowjobs paid for by his Saudi sheikh friends, his constituents, the people whom he’s riled up and summoned from Chiang-Mai to wage his battle, are camped out on the streets and fighting and dying on his behalf. Because for some reason, the Red Shirts – many of whom can’t rub two nickels together – took the seizure of Taksin’s assets as like a huge personal affront. Shortly after the government announced the ruling, now over two months ago, Red Shirts began pouring en masse into the city, preparing to wreak havoc. But why should the Taksin ruling incense the Reds so badly? Why do these impoverished farmers give a shit about whether a billionaire loses an extra billion? Truthfully, I don’t know. To me, though, it smacks of rhetoric and manipulation and obfuscation: Taksin has so inflated his own legend as Champion of the People and Defender of the Little Guy that his backers are willing to die for him, even though he’s (pretty transparently) interested only in himself*.

*When pressed, the Red Shirt attitude about their hero’s malfeasances is, Yeah, he’s corrupt, but so is every other politician in this country, and if we made a big deal about this kind of thing we’d never have anybody in office.

Of course, the Reds aren’t up in arms solely over Taksin’s financial loss; the confiscation of assets was merely the proverbial camel-straw. Their real objective is to get Taksin back in office. The Red Shirts’ argument – and it’s a fair one – is that Vajjejjiva wasn’t democratically elected, but militarily and unconstitutionally installed, and that the government needs to permit elections ASAP. Taksin would certainly win such an election in a landslide.

To that end (i.e., getting Taksin back in power), Red Shirt protestors have continuously occupied strategic sectors of Bangkok for the last two months*. They poured in from the Northern provinces by various forms of ad hoc transportation – pick-up trucks, tractors, bicycles, feet – in significant numbers (though just how significant is hard to say, since the Reds claim they’re 500,000 strong, and the Yellow government puts the figure closer to 5,000). They came with pickets, with banners, with bullhorns, and – a recent and alarming revelation – grenades.

*None of which sectors are near my quiet and isolated suburb, I should add, which has remained unaffected and will continue to remain unaffected, and as long as I’m not a total idiot and go out and screw around near known Red territory, I’m totally safe. Sure, my movements have been slightly restricted, but never once have I felt endangered.

Their aims, as I understand them, are twofold: they seek, first, a democratically elected Prime Minister; and second, they wish to dissolve parliament. The Reds initially pursued these goals through nonviolent means – speechifying, clogging traffic and public transit, generally inconveniencing and irritating people by making it hard to get between points A and B. But when these docile measures got them nowhere, their actions turned more pernicious.

The Red Shirt action that seemed to escalate tensions from ‘simmering’ to ‘boiling over,’ that lent these previously benign demonstrations a deeply disturbing cast, occurred in late March. To wit: the Reds collected blood from their supporters and used it as artillery, hurling it on government buildings and officials*. (A large quantity of the blood later proved HIV-positive, making the whole thing much creepier and more malicious.)

*Somehow it wasn’t the action itself that was so sinister, but the threat of the action: the drenching was well-publicized beforehand, and the red-puddled, rust-smelling, spattered downtown crafted by my imagination (blood churning in the gutters like slow lava, viscous red drops coming off the eaves, the whole city echoing with falling liquid as in a cave) was far more powerful to me than the actual consummation of the act, which proved actually not very graphic. It was the mental image of Bangkok as gory war zone that did more than anything to convince me of the Red Shirts’ seriousness, and of the situation’s gravity.

Red Shirts spill blood as riot police look on.

Since that incident, the protests have intensified and contorted and blackened; they have turned horrifying and terrifying and everybody in this city wishes desperately that they would end. The army has been called upon to contain the protests, yet they’ve done far more exacerbating than ameliorating. Deaths are sporadic but not uncommon: three killed when a grenade struck a subway stop; a soldier slain by a bullet through the eye (for some reason the ‘through the eye’ bit was never once tastefully omitted when this story broke, and for some reason that detail makes the soldier’s slaying even more appalling – I picture, always, the kid that Tim O’Brien kills in The Things They Carried, the star-shaped bullet wound obliterating, too, that VC’s eye). The worst carnage, by far, occurred in early April, when twenty-one Red Shirts and soldiers were killed.

It’s never clear, when the Red Shirts and the army come to blows, who exactly the initiator is. Whenever troops and demonstrators have historically clashed, the military seems the aggressor – eg., the Boston Massacre and the Vietnam protests in DC and Tienenman (sp?) Square. And it’s not hard to imagine a bunch of nervous trigger-happy soldiers, youthful and combat-untested, bearing assault-rifles and an inflated, govt-promoted sense of the Reds’ combustibility/weaponry, firing the first shots.

At the same time, there’s some sinister and sober quality to the Red Shirts – it’s maybe the grim strength of their convictions, the life-or-death import of the protests for them (that they’ve persisted despite heavy casualties is both admirable and awful), their willingness to do evil and batshit-crazy things like dumping blood on people and firing grenades onto crowded train platforms – that makes me think that maybe they’re actually the instigators, the first-stone-throwers. After all, they have an incentive to make this conflict a violent one. Every day of the Red Shirt occupation is a financial catastrophe for Thailand. The nation’s economy relies heavily on tourism, and not surprisingly tourism has etiolated during the protests; Thailand’s GDP takes a measurable hit with each Red sunrise. So the more dangerous the country appears, the more imperative it is that the conflict resolves itself, and the more likely (the thinking perhaps goes) that Vajjejjiva will cave and give the Reds what they want.


The Red Shirts’ political passion, the immutable willpower that keeps them in Bangkok despite heavy losses, is awe-inspiring and kind of shaming for me. Shaming in that they care about their cause more than I can imagine myself caring about any cause, ever. It’s clear to them now that their lives are at constant risk, yet their numbers have not appreciably decreased; they are not cowed by the possibility of death.

I don’t mean this reverentially: their methods are strange and cruel and their desperation scares me. They’re probably in the right, but they’re impossible to root for. I mean, rather, that their passion is awesome (in the real sense of that word), and that my own convictions feel milquetoast by comparison.

A not-so-far-fetched scenario: if George Bush had fabricated a war right before the end of his second term and exploited a constitutional loophole and, for the ostensible good of the nation, remained in executive power for a third term: would I have risked my life protesting that? Would I have occupied Washington DC for months, under fire from the National Guard, even as my fellow protestors were cut down around me? Would you have? I suspect I wouldn’t have. I would’ve held a picket sign; I would’ve marched circles around the Lincoln Memorial, I would’ve written strongly-worded letters to congressmen and editors and all the other traditional recipients of strongly-worded letters. I would’ve gotten arrested, I think. I would’ve chained myself to the front bumper of the presidential motorcade. But I wouldn’t have let myself be killed, or even put myself in a situation where death was at all a possibility. No way.

And that, I suppose, is the difference between the privileged and the un-. When I get sick, the private health insurance that my family and I can afford foots the bill, no matter how extravagant the treatment. When a Red Shirt got sick before Taksin, he couldn’t afford even the hospital stay, and he died. No wonder, then, that the Reds view a lower-class-friendly government as a matter of life or death. Wealth is insulation against political change. My yuppie brethren and I aren’t going to be drafted to fight in Iraq, or have to fall back on welfare, or rely the asphalt-laying jobs provided by a stimulus plan. My quality of life won’t be much different under Barack Obama than it was under GWB. I am, therefore, anesthetized. That’s why I – and most people, I bet, in my comparatively filthy-rich homeland – don’t possess the Red Shirts’ fuck-everything courage. We don’t have as much at stake.

Red Shirt protesters on the march.


So the whole sad frightening mess has dragged on, as implacable and slow-moving as WWI-style trench warfare, each side making microscopic tactical gains and sustaining equally minute damage, not much, really, happening besides the senseless loss of life. A massive military crushing of the Red Shirts was rumored for weeks, and the prospect of such a savage denouement was alarming – the Reds’ reaction to an incursion could well have been not dispersal, but civil war. A violent climax to the conflict seemed inevitable.

And then, only yesterday (after I’d written the above post and come to a gloomy conclusion about the said inevitability of violence), the Red Shirts appeared to turn the attritional tide decisively in their favor: PM Vajjejjiva agreed to disband parliament and hold elections in November. That’s a remarkable turnaround, considering that elections are a radical step, and obviously inimical to Vajjejjiva’s interests. There are still details to be hashed out – the Red Shirts want elections much sooner than Vajjejjiva’s willing to hold them – but it appears that a truce may be coalescing.

It’s too early, I think, to declare the conflict ended; although both sides appear to have finally tired of brutality, I don’t trust either’s sudden magnanimity. But if, in fact, Thailand is out of the woods, I wonder how that rewrites the last two months. Is violence that a week ago seemed senseless abruptly justified? Now that the Red Shirts have emerged as putative victors, and the bloody rigmarole has yielded a righteous and noble solution, should I look more kindly upon the protestors? Democracy has won (or at least is winning) out; why, then, does this conclusion not feel triumphant? Perhaps because the methods through which this triumph was achieved are reprehensible: the product is admirable but the process deplorable. Posterity will tell us whether the ends justified the means.


  1. 我們不是因為快樂而歌唱,而是唱歌使我們快樂........................................

  2. I'm not sure what the above comments mean. A few thoughts even less informed (and less well-written) than your own:

    Thaksin (who does have another name -- Shinawatra), was definitely corrupt, but as you point out, probably a pretty effective leader. Certainly more so than the new guy. He definitely pandered a bit to his poor constituents (I think he's really popular in Isaan, but that's not really a crime.

    The main point is that the current PM is probably ruling in spite of the will of the majority of the people. Which is probably not good.

    An interesting point -- he was also the owner of Manchester City (soccer team) for a little bit. It would sort of be like if Sylvio Berlusconi got deposed in a Coup and then bought the Mets.

    And the last point, which may be dangerous to have on your blog, is the very mysterious role of the much-revered King, and the overall roll of the monarchy in the thai governing system (especially as it relates to the King's role in the coup, and who his potential successor might be, or whether they might get rid of the monarchy).

    Sorry if that gets you arrested: