April 14, 2009

Thailand’s Slow Descent

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For years Thailand has been held up as a beacon of stability and comparatively good governance in a region often lacking both. But recently the country has been slipping into what would appear to be a zero-sum political conflict. First came the protests and coup against then Prime Minister Thaskin. The coup was supposedly to restore order but was seen by many as an attempt to remove Thaskin permanently. Thaskin’s populist policies aimed at empowering rural and northern Thais were interpreted as interpreted as a threat by the traditional power centers, including the military.

When elections were held in 2007, the Thai electorate rebuked the elite coup by electing Thaskin’s political allies back into office. Then Thaskin’s opponents organized the People’s Alliance for “Democracy” and engaged in increasingly confrontational tactics aimed at destabilizing the government that peaked with the occupation of Bangkok’s airports. To defuse the crisis (and once again repress the populists,) the country’s Supreme Court ended up disbanding the pro-Thaskin political power, which in the end turned over the government to the country’s old-style politicians. Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva became Thailand’s youngest ever Prime Minister, and was saddled with the legacy of questionable legitimacy and spiraling social conflict. And with the events of this week, we have come full circle back to where we were in 2006.

Thaskin’s supporters have not been taking the change in government lightly. The Red Shirts have been protesting and keeping pressure on the government. But with this week’s summit of Asian leaders they made a bold move. Forcing their way into the convention center complex they forced the Thai government to cancel the summit while they also attacked a cabinet official, dragging him from his car and beating him. Now the government has declared a state of emergency and protestors continue to disturb Bangkok and the country in general.

The situation in Thailand is a tragic example of what can happen when democratic processes are de-legitimized. Inadvertently, the conservative elite elements of Thai society have set a precedent for social disorder and have set off a cycle of violence that is likely to spiral out of control. It would seem now that options are narrowing, either the government resigns or the military makes forceful and what promises to be violent moves against the protestors. Either way, the system will not be restored to equilibrium and the country will remain on the brink.