The hospitalization of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has brought Thailand’s most daunting question to the fore. The country’s wrenching political struggle over the past several years has, at bottom, concerned what will happen after the ailing 81-year-old king’s reign, now at 63 years, comes to an end.
Thailand’s endgame is being shaped by several key events: the military coup of September 2006, the current military-supported Constitution and election in 2007, street protests and seizures of Government House and Bangkok’s airports last year, the army-brokered coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that has ruled since January this year, and the Bangkok riots in April.
At stake is the soul of an emerging Thailand, with far-reaching ramifications for developing democracies elsewhere as well as the broader international community.
Thailand’s color-coated crisis pits largely urban, conservative and royalist “yellow” shirts against the predominantly rural “red” columns of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For much of Thailand’s long economic boom of the past two decades, wealth resided mostly in the Bangkok metropolitan area, a boon to the burgeoning urban middle class, but deeply resented by the rural majority.
While the rural population had more than enough to eat, their economic opportunities and upward mobility were limited by a shoddy education system and docile state-run media that fed them soap operas and official messages. For a nobody to become a somebody, all roads led to Bangkok and its prestigious prep schools and universities.
Thailand’s farms became increasingly alienated from the urban elite. Thaksin recognized this urban-rural divide and shrewdly exploited it, upending the elite consensus that had long prevailed.
That consensus rested on a nexus of the military, the monarchy and the bureaucracy. Military rule and putsches stemming from factional infighting among generals were the norm until the early 1970s, when university students overthrew a military dictatorship and opened up democratic space. Parliament, political parties and politicians then came and went alternately with military coups, which invariably suppressed the maturation of democratic institutions.
The rural-urban divide wedded the grassroots rural population to upcountry patronage networks and vote-buying, while elected politicians reaped their rewards through corruption and graft. In turn, the military stepped in from time to time — once every four years on average since 1932 — ostensibly to suppress corruption, but retarding democratic rule in the process.
All this changed when Thailand promulgated a Constitution in 1997 that promoted political transparency and accountability and government stability and effectiveness. Its logical but flawed outcome was the triumph of Thaksin and his once-invincible Thai Rak Thai party, which became the first to complete a full term and be re-elected — by a landslide in 2005.
Thai Rak Thai’s populism featured income redistribution, cheap health care, micro-credit schemes and a dazzling array of policy innovations that ushered Thailand into 21st century globalization. The direct connection of Thaksin and his party to the electorate bypassed and threatened the established trinity of institutions that had long called the shots in Thailand.