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Thai Democracy « Previous | |Next »
May 17, 2010

In the last 60 or so years Thailand has witnessed more than 15 coups, 16 constitutions and 27 changes of prime minister. So though the current conflict and bloodshed is the worst in two decades, it is not unprecedented. Areas of Bangkok have been turned into “live firing zones”.


The street violence would indicate that Thailand has lost faith in electoral democracy and many poor and working-class Thai citizens are seeking a transformation in the underlying social and political relations of rule.

My crude understanding is that the rural poor (red shirts, or anti-government protesters) are protesting for the right to have a greater say in the government of their country. The move is being resisted by the Bangkok elite – the wealthiest families, the military, the bureaucrats – who have controlled Thailand's affairs for generations, and who do not like an electoral democracy that brings the rural poor to power.Hence their antagonism to the red shirt protesters, pushing for the devolution of economic and political power to average Thais.

says that:

The events of recent years have in some ways exceeded traditional Thai upheavals of the past. Instead of a single brutal and decisive crackdown that reset the political clock at the first peak of political agitation, we have a drawn out and decidedly indecisive series of provocations that have included attacks on the monarchy and privy council (and this was perhaps only made possible by the coincidental existence of a new medium of expression—the internet)......Dozens of political lines have been crossed in recent years in the conduct of politics and protest. That means we are presently drawing out and testing new lines.

Tyrell Haberkorn in
Thailand's political transformation at Open Democracy says that the familiar rendering of Thailand’s political drama - a popular insurgency by Thailand’s rural poor against its urban rich---fails to convey the political heterogeneity that has been emerging under these misleadingly unified banners. He says:
The red-shirt movement in Thailand is redefining the terrain of politics, in a way reminiscent of the autonomist struggles in Italy in the late 1970s and the Zapatistas in Mexico in the late 1990s. For like these earlier movements, the UDD is seeking both to contest an ancien regime (and in Thai terms, the amatya and jao who populate it) and to change the terms of engagement through which politics is conducted.The red-shirts are, after all, seeking far more than merely a seat at the decision-making table for the marginalised majority. In their refusals, demonstrations and demands to reshape politics, they are agents of a deeper transformation in Thailand.

For Haberkon the counter-revolutionary violence being exercised by Thailand's elite is seeking to keep the new at bay, even whilst the old order is dying. Will the army allow fresh parliamentary elections? Do they call the shots rather than the elected government of Abhisit Vejjajiva?

A journalist called Igor Prahin has been updating his Flickr stream, and he has several images of Bangkok on fire. The Thai government cannot shoot its way back to political order and then pretend to hold elections as if nothing had happened. The country's political order will not be the same, even if there are more shopping malls built.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:09 AM | | Comments (6)


Gary I only recently became aware of this ANU blog which has provided me with a lot of useful analysis and contemporary insights. Someone at LP provided the link and I've forgotten who, or I would give them credit.

As developing countries become more prosperous and their citizens better educated, I'm sure we will see more of these long extended power plays in countries like Thailand (and China). Existing power distributions, even if given the cloak of respectability of a democratic constitution, inevitably favour the old ruling classes. They are unlikely to see their power eroded without a struggle and the rapidly expanding middle classes are unlikely to settle for permanent second class status.

In many ways it's the same process that European countries (including Russia) endured in the 19th and 20th centuries, albeit without such a visible aristocracy. We can only hope that less blood will be spilled than was the case in Europe, although events in China since 1945 don't give reason for optimism.

the ANU's New Mandala blog is excellent--a model of a university blog or academic blogging that participates in the public sphere by providing analysis and new perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia.

I welcome this transgression of traditional outlets for scholarly writings—the expensive and painstakingly edited journals and monographs of the publishing trade—and the opening of the doors and windows of the university to a wider public through an embrace of Web 2.0

I cannot recall how I stumbled across it either. It was only recently.

To pick up on Ken's point. Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Thammasat University in Bangkok says that:

The battle was between the army that supports the establishment, government and Bangkok’s urban elite against the people from the provinces.It is a real class war.

It looks like Sage will go open access soon. Once they do, others will follow.

Our Thai neighbours are more worried about the king than anything else. He's been in hospital for months and many suspect he's already died. It's a very unfortunate convergence of events for the country.

re Sage---Let us hope they go open access. The traditional academic publishing business model is pricing itself out of the market. I don't read many books or journals these days as a result. I'd rather spend the money on buying film to create images.

Clearing demonstrators from the streets in central Bangkok using military force doesn't address the political conflict between the opposing sides; a divide between the two sides that transcends social class and regional origin, splitting families and households across the nation.

That conflict requires an accommodation to be reached between the two sides. Such an accommodation might take the form of a political deal, a power-sharing arrangement, or some kind of substantial decentralisation.