In a region scarred by conflict, Thailand has long been a beacon of stability, relative prosperity, and political liberty. While civil wars and genocide tore apart neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand was an oasis of calm in South-east Asia.
That is no longer so. The violent anti-government demonstrations shaking Bangkok are a symptom of a deeper malaise. Something has gone radically wrong in Thailand in recent years. The country has become extraordinarily polarised, rich against poor and town against countryside. If this confrontation continues, Thailand, and its monarchy, could end up going the same way as Nepal. There, the obstinacy of the royal court and its conservative supporters united the majority of the population behind Communist insurgents who, in the end, took over the country. Thailand is not at this point, but the fact that such a scenario no longer sounds as outlandish as it would have done a few years ago is testament to the degree to which matters have deteriorated.
The bogeyman of the demonstrators now occupying ministries and key buildings in Bangkok is Thailand’s exiled de facto ruler, Thaksin Shinawatra. He was barred from the country following a military coup in 2006 but now again more or less runs things, albeit from Dubai, via his sister Yingluck, who became the Prime Minister in 2011. Mr Shinawatra is not an entirely attractive figure. Hugely rich, his critics view him as a corrupt demagogue who has championed the poor principally to attain power. Better-off Thais resent his populist economic agenda, which they say is clientelistic and undermines growth. More broadly, wealthy conservative Thais fear the Shinawatras are using their vast powers of patronage to build an alternative state-within-a state, which is beholden to them and sidelines the monarchy.
Their analysis may have some merit to it. Nervousness in the business community about Mr Shinawatra’s possible return has hit investor confidence while Thailand’s growing reputation for instability is starting to affect the all-important tourist industry. As for the monarchy, there is no doubt that Mr Shinawatra wants to clip its wings, even if he has never declared an ambition to get rid of it. What passes by many of the Thaksin-haters, however, is the fact that, in five elections in a row, most voters have heartily endorsed him. Many Thais almost worship him as the tribune of the forgotten marginalised majority. In others words, even if the Prime Minister does give in to the protesters and resign, the only result is likely to be yet another election that she and her brother then win hands down.
The protesters know this, which is why they are angling for a third solution, which would avoid an election and involve the government quitting and vesting its powers in an unelected, or indirectly elected, council. Meanwhile, many of the demonstrators over the weekend appealed to the Americans to support “their friends” in Thailand, meaning themselves. If the Americans do have any influence over the protesters, which is questionable, their advice should be succinct: calm down, and remember what happened in Nepal.