Thailand has been in the international spotlight yet again over the last few weeks as the latest round of political violence reached a head. The latest conflict is simply part of a cycle that threatens to continue for some years yet, until certain other events will either quash it, or take it to a whole new level.
Each time the violence is shown on international TV, well-meaning people ask me and my fellow expats: "Are you OK?" or "What exactly is going on over there?". The problem with the second question is that people, understandably, assume that ex-pats out here comprehend what's really happening and can explain it. Sadly this is a faulty assumption. Many expats are as ignorant and blinkered about the situation as anyone else.
Often, expats give the breakdown like this: "Red shirts want Thaksin back. They worship him and come down from the north to Bangkok to protest for a couple of hundred baht (about five dollars) per day." This typical statement has several obvious undertones - all red shirts are poor, weak minded and uneducated puppets. The yellow shirts meanwhile, "hate Thaksin and want to keep him out." This is true in itself, but still lacks great detail.
For those who wanted a little more insight, I will now try to summarise the political situation in Thailand as concisely as possible.
Thaksin Shinwatra came to power in 2001. In his election campaign, he promised to pay attention to the poorer people of Thailand from the northern regions. He pledged village funds, discounted consumer goods and agricultural loans.
Thaksin and his party ("Thai Rak Thai" or "Thais love Thais") won the election by a landslide, partly due to his dynamic campaign and partly due to the weak performance of the preceding Democrat government during the Asian Financial Crisis.
Upon taking office, it was revealed/alleged by the National Counter Corruption Commission that the brand new PM had concealed millions of baht in assets by transferring them to relatives and house workers. Thaksin described it as 'an honest mistake'.
In the build up to his trial, tremendous pressure was placed on the NCCC and Constitutional Court judges. Thaksin would walk to the courts in celebrity style and make grand speeches decrying the courts and implying they were out of touch and undemocratic. He won his case. Years later, one of the judges admitted he had "been placed under tremendous pressure and threats".
Over the next few years Thaksin introduced many schemes such as the 20 baht health care scheme, village banking scheme and the war on drugs. The latter was opened by a remarkable speech but ended in thousands of suspicious deaths, often involving shootouts between police and unproven suspects.
Other problems occurred. Thaksin and his party had such a strong grip on parliament that no real opposition could be mounted. Various laws sailed through the house that involved massive conflicts of interest. Thaksin formed, then dissolved, then formed, then dissolved again a telecommunications watchdog while promoting his very own phone company across the country. He fired the advertisers who had won the contract for the Bangkok Sky Train development project and gave the contract to his own son, he used his position as PM to gain contracts for his own company abroad. Most worryingly, the senate and the Election Commission appeared to offer very little scrutiny of the house. Many senators had the same surnames as members of Thaksin's party.
Media freedom also became a concern. One newspaper that became critical of him found themselves subject to an AMLO investigation.
But none of this was wholly different to previous governments, except in its scope and chokehold on power. Meanwhile, the TRT party took the unique step of actually keeping some pre-election promises. The health-care scheme, the village funding, the loans to farmers were all delivered.
As this happened, some high raking people including the head privy councilor and a former business colleague began to launch vocal attacks on Thaksin, who responded in kind. The ex-colleague formed a group known as the PAD, who later became known simply as the "yellow shirts" and began a public war of words and lawsuits with the PM, followed by street protests.
Initially their protests were peaceful. The PAD were formed mainly from Bangkok people who were more aware of Thaksin's corruption and less beneficial from his policies, that were aimed at the poorer people in the north. The regular Bangkok protests made Thaksin a PM in exile. Eventually, it opened the door for the coup.
Thaksin responded by dissolving parliament and calling an election, but all major parties announced a boycott. When the elections were done, just one single MP who was not from Thai Rak Thai was elected. The situation was described by His Majesty the King as "a mess" and he urged the courts to solve the problem. From that moment on, the courts - particularly the Constitutional Court - made several strong, key verdicts that had a huge effect on the nation.
The coup of 2003 was lead by general Sondhi, one of many officers who had been spurned by Thaksin in military promotions. The junta set up a special panel to investigate alleged corruption by Thaksin and his family and a new government, with a former general as PM, took over the parliament.
The government was, by all accounts, dismal. Their greatest failure was any effort to dispel Thaksin's popularity with the north-eastern people. As the election loomed, a controversial charge was filed against the Thai Rak Thai Party that involved retroactive application of law. The court found the party guilty of vote buying and dissolved the party, banning all executives from politics for ten years.
The response from the TRT party was to use its second string of members as a new executive, and to form a new party. The junta set a date for new elections and introduced a new constitution. The new document was given a lukewarm reception and passed through referendum, though it was rejected in northern provinces.
The new election was billed as the Democrat Party - popular in Bangkok and the south - against the new incarnation of Thaksin's party. The latter won. Samak Suntarajev was the new PM and Thaksin returned to Thai shores, vowing to clear his name.
Perhaps he became overconfident. The courts found his wife guilty of abuse of power and laid new charges against Thaksin. He and his wife jumped bail and left the country again. Shortly after, the second incantation of his part was yet again dissolved by the courts. The banning of executives tipped the balance of parliament and allowed Democrat Aphisit Vejajiva as PM. All this took place while the PAD yellow shirts hit the streets with protests more violent and intimidating than ever before, including the seizure of the airport.
Aphisit worked hard to win favour but those who supported the ousted TRT party formed the 'red shirt' group and began their own protests. During the song kran festivals of 2009, the red shirts were spurned on by calls to 'bring down the elite' and rioted in Bangkok. One big target of their anger was Privy Councilor Prem Timsoland, who had served as chief of the privy council for many years and is considered to be very close to His Majesty The King.
The Aphisit government managed to dispel the protests and the courts began a case against Thaksin to seize assets of his frozen in Thai accounts. The verdict was reached about three months ago and some fifty billion baht of assets were taken from the ex-PM. Soon after, the red shirt groups promised the 'biggest rally ever' which lead to the events of the last few weeks.
There is another, crucial - perhaps the most crucial - aspect to all this that I cannot discuss. Two editions of 'The Economist' were banned from Thailand last year as was a book by Paul Handley for discussing the same sensitive topics. A google search for "Thailand's succession" may provide further research detail in this area.
How this saga will end is both difficult to assess for the reason mentioned above and also depressing to consider, with no end to the polarisation in sight and those in political power seeking only to exploit the situation for their own gain. What is clear however, is that some of the stereotypes and simplifications applied by Thai and foreigners alike to the situation are at best, lazy and, at worse, stupid.
It is true red shirted protesters mostly come from low income areas with lower standards of education. The Oxford University educated Aphisit Vejajiva of the Democrat Party has had over a year to win the hearts and minds of those in the north, and has failed to do so. Many of them want Thaksin back not because they worship him, but because for all his many faults, he actually had some benefit to people who live on sums of cash that many foreigners could never manage to live off, let alone support an entire family. Far from being foolish puppets of propaganda, most red shirts know exactly where their bread is buttered and are fighting for what is best for them, at least in the short term.
Moreover, the reds have a justified complaint. A government elected by a popular democratic vote has been overturned not once, but twice, in highly disputed circumstances. Meanwhile, the ruling Democrat Party were not even charged with a accepting an illegal donation until the same protesters stormed the Election Commission and demanded it happen.
Likewise, the yellow shirt PAD protesters had a full manifesto for change that went well beyond lynching Thaksin. Sadly, that detail was lost in the chaos of the violent actions taken by the group, who went on to form their own political party.
This is the briefest summary possible. Far more people, events and history have gone into making this saga. If you want to learn more, a few of these books may help:
Thaksin - the Business of Politics in Thailand - Pasuk and Baker
The Thaksinization of Thailand - Duncan McCargo
A Coup for the Rich? - Giles Ungpakorn
A political History of Thailand
The King Never Smiles - Paul Handley