The Forces Behind Thailand's Chaos
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas on Sunday. He ordered military deployments throughout the capital to assist police in clamping down on massive protests, which have brought enormous domestic and international pressures to bear against the 4-month-old government. The decision to declare emergency measures came a day after red-shirted protesters broke into the beach resort where an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit - also attended by leaders from Japan, China, South Korea, India and Australia - was scheduled. Abhisit canceled the event amid international humiliation. News from Thailand from early April 13 local time revealed that Abhisit had called for a second day of emergency actions, while security forces were using tear gas to clear the streets. The opposition movement was calling for a complete overthrow of the government.
The immediate context of the ongoing political upheaval is the 2006 military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- a policeman and telecommunications mogul who created a political machine in the rural provinces that could have re-elected him repeatedly. Although Thakin has been exiled, his political proxies were chosen to head the civilian government after the coup. Broad anti-Thaksin protests and shifting alliances among the country's political elite brought down three governments between 2006 and 2008, before a court order enabled a new Democrat-led (anti-Thaksin) government to lead in December 2008. Now Thaksin is acting as puppet master behind the Red Shirts' "revolutionary" movement, urging them to topple the Democrats and pledging to return to Thailand to lead marches in the capital.
But there is more to the story. Social and political unrest is woven through Thailand's political culture -- the country has had 19 coups and numerous attempted coups since its transformation to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The cyclical instability arises from geopolitical factors that historically have determined Thailand's behavior and will continue to do so.
Geopolitics is rooted in geography. Thailand forms the heart of the jungle-covered Southeast Asian peninsula, wedged between Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to the west, Laos and Cambodia to the east, and Malaysia to the south. Most versions of Thai history consider the ethnic Thai people to have been late-comers to the region; harried successively by Chinese and Mongol armies from the north, the Thai were forced to carve out their plot between the Burmese and Khmer (Cambodian) empires, and to vie with Malay and Chinese traders.
The Kingdom of Siam, as Thailand was called, took shape around the 12th to 13th centuries, near the fertile mouth of the Chao Phraya River, which empties into the Gulf of Thailand. The Siamese were well positioned to grow rice and sell it to merchants for export to hungry foreign markets. They quickly expanded their territory outward to give themselves strategic depth. Moving northward, they gained dominance over the fertile river valleys of the Chao Phraya and its tributaries, all the way up to the mountainous north -- where they contended with a rival ethnic Thai center of power, based in Chiang Mai. To the northeast, they forced the collapse of the Khmer empire and seized the Khorat Plateau, which had (and still has) a large population for much-needed labor. Along the mountainous western border, and south into the Malay peninsula, the Siamese fought off the Burmese and the Malay.
Despite boundary shifts over the centuries, modern Thailand retains the outline of Siam. The buffer zones in the north, northeast and south were necessary to fend off invasion, and were for the most part effective. The Burmese conquered Siam twice, but never held it -- the Cambodians were a permanent thorn in the side, but never a master. Only once -- in the late 19th century, at the height of the European colonial era -- did Thailand lose control of its buffers. French incursions from French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and British incursions from Burma and Malaysia reduced the kingdom to its core around the Chao Phraya Delta. But just as it was about to yield to colonial possessors, as most of Asia had done by then, the rise of Germany distracted the French and the British. The Thai are proud that their country is one of the few in the region to have escaped European domination.
Thailand, therefore, has always been anxious to secure its defensible positions in the north, northeast and south; its survival depends on it. However, these regions have never been easy for Bangkok to control. On the eastern Khorat Plateau, Bangkok's hold was always challenged by Cambodian and Vietnamese influence. In the south, the predominantly Muslim inhabitants periodically have resisted Bangkok's authority; a Muslim insurgency rages in the south today.
But the most difficult region for Bangkok to rein in was the north, with its capital Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai and Siam were ancient enemies, and Siam did not win full administrative control over the city until the late 1800s. The northern hills not only provided business opportunities such as logging, but also cover for those rebelling against the central power, including a communist insurgency and a separatist movement by ethnic minorities. Significantly, the mountains also enabled a massive and lucrative opium trade that generated organized criminal networks and corruption, which pervaded provincial governments, the business elite and even the national military.
This is the background from which the current unrest emerges. The current Democrat-led government is firmly rooted in Bangkok. The military, monarchy, civil bureaucracy and urban middle class are for the most part aligned with the government. They claim to be devoted to traditional Thai values of nation, religion and monarchy and to revere King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- hence the royalist, yellow-wearing protest movement that toppled the government last year, and hence the military's unwillingness to act on that government's orders to put the movement down.
The movement now in opposition to the government is rooted in the north and northeast. The majority of the population and a wealthy network of provincial big business and agriculture based in these regions support the pro-rural policies of Thaksin, who is a native son of Chiang Mai. Thaksin's side is associated with entrepreneurs and international capitalist commerce, which is anathema to the military and monarchy. Thaksin is also said to have much influence among the national police force, since he served as a policeman. The "Red Shirt" protesters receive direction from Thaksin through mass video conference calls.
Ultimately, then, Thailand's endless cycles of political tumult are configured by the tensions between Bangkok and the provinces. The lines are not always simple, and political opportunism reigns. Nevertheless, the urban-versus-rural split is the primary force driving confrontations between the various factions. Throughout the 20th century, the military -- generally with moral support from the monarch -- was the only force capable of attempting to maintain a balance of power. Yet divisions within the military, and between the national police and military, have persisted because of the country's underlying power struggle; hence the 19 coups.
In the current situation, the military and police operations in Bangkok might stabilize the city temporarily. King Bhumibol could intercede and convince the rival parties to retreat, restoring a semblance of calm. Thaksin is unlikely to come back to power because the military is staunchly against him, but he might manage to cut a deal with the government to save his skin or possibly create enough of a stir to put his proxies back in power. Still, these are passing causes of instability, which itself will remain an essential fact of Thailand's geopolitics.