No Thai Way Out

Joshua Kurlantzick · The Stand-Off in Bangkok

The situation in Thailand is rapidly deteriorating. This past weekend, fighting between protestors and the security forces killed at least 20 people and wounded hundreds, leaving parts of Bangkok, including a prominent tourist area, strewn with shell casings and blood.

Thailand has witnessed its share of unrest and protest – major demonstrations in 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006 and 2008 – but most Thais have always assumed it could be contained: the country, which had avoided being colonised, destroyed by the Second World War, ravaged by the Indochina wars or wrecked by civil conflict, would always find some last-minute solution to a crisis. ‘That’s the Thai way,’ a friend in Bangkok told me. ‘We’ll always figure something out.’

Now, for the first time, with protestors again massing in Bangkok and a state of emergency declared by the government, most Thai intellectuals I spoke with during a recent visit to the country don’t see any ‘Thai way’ out. For one thing, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, who brokered for example the climbdown from violence in 1992, is now 82 years old and very sick. And because Bhumibhol always played the role of mediator of last resort, Thailand never developed permanent institutions, like an impartial judiciary, which could outlast the revered king and play this role now.

In addition, rising income inequality – worse in Thailand now than in the Philippines – has led to immense anger, and as the poor have grown more desperate, politics has become more aggressive and hard-edged.

Most important, the assumption has collapsed that the Bangkok elites who have run the country, working through the monarchy, army and big business, have kept Thailand on the right path, even if they weren’t exactly sympathetic to real democracy. After all, these ‘good men’ who ran Thailand for years produced, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, one of the hottest economies in the world. If the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is now censoring the local news media and using an emergency decree to try to stop the protests, was delivering strong and equitable economic growth, he might still have a chance to defuse the demonstrations.

But over the past five years, since the elites grabbed back power from Thaksin Shinawatra, they have overseen a stagnant economy, a deteriorating education system that puts Thailand in poor shape to challenge such regional competitors as Vietnam, and an influx of cheap Chinese goods swamping Thai farmers. The government appears to have no long-term strategy, and has even taken to copying many of Thaksin’s populist policies. A happy resolution to the stand-off in Bangkok seems unlikely.