Thailand’s politics are in turmoil, featuring mass demonstrations, a growing role for the military in Thai politics, and erosion of the country’s fledgling democracy. If the United States aims to construct a foreign policy which can adapt to the coming Thai tempest, we need to understand the players and the turf.
The Conflict and Its Players
At a fundamental level, society is split over one man: telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin’s popularity owes critically to the fact that after campaigning in 2001 with a bevy of populist promises, he delivered upon these once elected. As such, he earned a loyal mass following, becoming adored by most of Thailand’s rural, often impoverished population — who constitute the bulk of the electorate.
In 2010, four years after being overthrown in a military coup, Thaksin continues to possess much political capital across the country. Efforts to apprehend him, cut off his sources of copious funding, and perhaps even eliminate him, have thus far failed. From an undisclosed location abroad, Thaksin has managed to build abundant and well-organized support among thousands of “Red Shirt” demonstrators as well as cultivate greater ties among active and retired police, soldiers, civilian bureaucrats, politicians, business people, and even persons of colossal clout.
The opponents of Thaksin galvanized initially against him in 2005 when they realized that his political machine might boost him to become the single most dominant person in the country — perhaps preempting even the palace. There seemed to be plenty of evidence of this as, Thaksin sought to pack the courts with his cronies and run roughshod over the constitution. An ironic anti-Thaksin alliance of civil libertarians and royalists grew into a particularly potent “People’s Alliance for Democracy” — the Yellow Shirt movement.
The rise of anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” protestors and their Yellow Shirt allies in the armed forces, the voiding of the April 2006 Lower House election, the coup of September 2006, the constitution of 2007, the refusal of the military to safeguard two Thaksin-tilted governments in 2008, the armed forces’ assistance in cobbling together the Democrat-led government later that year, and the current military stance in safeguarding the anti-Thaksin ruling coalition — all have attempted to ensure that Thaksin and his minions are pushed out of the political picture for good.