Over the past week, observers of politics in Thailand have been treated to yet another public display of anti-government street protests that have sought to paralyze the elected administration.
It is unfortunately a familiar sight to those well acquainted with Thailand, where there is a longstanding competition for power between the poorer, majority population living in rural areas and a landed minority elite in Bangkok. Not far beneath the surface of this misleading dichotomy is a tragic history of repression --the story of a nominally democratic nation that has struggled to put the military under true civilian control following no fewer than four violent massacres in the past 40 years.
The last time I was involved with mass demonstrations in Bangkok in 2010, the protesters were wearing different colored t-shirts, but the fundamental issues remained the same. I had been sent there to serve as international counsel to the Red Shirts, who were facing a wide variety of violations to their human rights. They were protesting for their basic right to suffrage and against the self-appointed Democrat Party, whose friends in the court system had repeatedly banned popular parties, disqualified winning candidates and subverted democracy according to their own designs for the nation.
Back then, the unelected leadership ordered the military to fire upon the protesters, killing more than 90 innocent civilians. Now, some of these same former government officials, such as Suthep Thaugsuban -- who once said that Red Shirt protesters had died because they "ran into the sniper's bullets" -- have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, rather than trying their luck at the ballot box.
What has transpired in Bangkok in recent weeks deserves much scrutiny, and only a serious look at what the unrest says about the "deep state" that is operating behind the scenes.
The "deep state," which refers to entrenched networks of power within the official apparatus over which civilian authorities have no real control, is a useful concept to analyze the complex political events presently taking place in Thailand. Behind the current spate of protests, there is coordination at work by the deep state to substitute the democratic process to achieve an outcome suitable to the interests of a minority.
The problem begins with the fact that, for decades, Thailand's democracy was not representative in the truest sense of the word, but rather an exclusionary club.
When the popular leader Thaksin Shinawatra emerged in 2001, he found success in uniting a number of democratic forces that were not aligned to the Thai Army, the traditional "deep state" source of influence. There is little mystery why Thaksin remains popular. Before being ousted by a military coup in 2006, he had delivered massive economic growth, widespread improvements in healthcare for Thailand's poorest citizens and a new sense of enfranchisement and citizenship to millions. Far from being a divisive force, he has managed to put together a national coalition of entrepreneurs and ordinary Thai citizens, which has resulted in five clear election victories over the past twelve years.