Thailand: Protests Open New Divisions In Society – Analysis


Thailand is currently engulfed by daily demonstrations by reform anti-junta student protesters across Bangkok and some of the provinces. Crowds of in excess of 20,000 students have been seen on the streets each night. 

The events on Bangkok’s streets go against the establishment nightly, are exposing deep-seated divisions within Thai society. The high ranks of the military and bureaucracy and the families that own Thailand’s big businesses, patronized and even intermarried with the monarchy , are at one end, and the general population, of which people living on subsistence make up the majority, over a range of non-Thai ethnic groups, on the other. 

According to a World Bank report, poverty has again been on the rise in Thailand since former army chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha took over control of the government in the 2014 coup that ended the popularly elected Pheu Thai government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself had earlier been driven from power by these same elites. 

The bottom 10 percent of Thai society have no wealth, while the top 10 percent have amassed 85 percent of the nation’s assets. A recent Credit Suisse report named Thailand as the most unequal country in the world, with 1 percent of the population owning 66.9 percent of the nation’s wealth. The Thai legal system is heavily criticized as favoring the elite classes, with justice meted out on very different terms for ordinary people. 

The masses never had any benefits from political power until Thaksin, an ex-policeman, later media mogul and billionaire, won two landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005, becoming the only prime minister to serve a full term. His pragmatic Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party had the support of the poor, who greatly benefited from his initiatives including a universal healthcare system, access to university education for the poor, infrastructure development in rural areas, a debt moratorium for farmers and village empowerment through direct payments to village funds for micro-infrastructure development. 

The introduction of One Tambun One Product (OTOP), and microfinance schemes assisted in boosting the development of small enterprises, lifting incomes dramatically. However, Thaksin’s reform of the bureaucracy, taking over decisions on who was placed in top military and police positions, as well as his mass popularity, led to the establishment’s undermining his tenure.

Thaksin faced justifiable allegations of corruption, being overly authoritarian, committing treason, tax evasion, suppressing, and press freedom. In addition, he was painted by leaders of the royalist yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy as a direct threat to the monarchy and the nation despite his protestations of loyalty to the throne. After winning another snap election in early 2006, the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), with a primary aim of opposing any anti-monarchy movement, led by staunch establishment monarchist Chamlong Srimuang took to the streets in a long and drawn out occupation until Thaksin resigned as prime minister. This eventually led to the 2006 coup and Thaksin’s beginning his self-exile abroad. 

In the 2007 election after the coup, Taksin proxies through a new party, the Peoples Power Party (PPP), won convincingly once again. Very soon after the election PAD returned to occupy the streets of Bangkok, blocking road, airport runways, and laying siege to Government House, calling for the resignation of Taksin ally and prime minister Samak Sundarevej, after the Constitutional Court disqualified him for receiving payment for hosting a cooking program on television. PPP deputy leader and Taksin brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, took over as prime minister for a couple of weeks until the PPP was dissolved and the Democrat Party, well known for favouring the establishment, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva became the government. 

Abhisit’s legitimacy was challenged by the National Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the red shirts. The UDD believed that the establishment, led by Privy Council head Prem Tinsulanonda was instrumental in the demise of pro-Taksin parties, leading to in protests 2009, and bloody street battles and near anarchy in 2010. Troops used live ammunition on the protesters on April 10th killing more than 25 protesters and injuring more than 800. Unidentified snipers from the roofs of Bangkok shot dead one of the leaders Sae Dang, in cold blood. A number Red Shirt leaders surrendered, while some held up forming pockets to resist the military, while the rest of the mob retreated burning down buildings and businesses owned by the elite establishment.  

In the 2011 election, a new pro-Taksin party Pheu Thai nominated Taksin’s sister Yingluck as prime minister and won a landslide victory. The Pheu Thai government was almost immediately undermined legally and politically. The PDRC took up permanent places around Bangkok, establishing the “Occupy Bangkok”, and later “Shutdown Bangkok” movement. The basic assumption behind Thai politician Suthep Thaugsban’s Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) movement that brought down the Yingluck government and became a pretext for the 2104 coup by Prayuth, was that members of the elite in Thailand are the best to run government due to lack of education on the part of the masses. 

After months of protests from both sides of the political spectrum, and a number of violent acts including bombings and shootings, came the 2013 snap election called by Yingluck in attempt to disperse the political instability. Elements of PDRC across the country hindered and sabotaged voting and counting, leading to an incomplete election. After continued instability, then leader of the army Prayut staged a coup taking Yingluck and her cabinet into custody, along with many government and opposition MPs, activists, and academics. Over the ensuing period after the coup most Red Shirt leaders, political activists, anti-junta academics and journalists were either arrested, disappeared or fled to neighbouring countries for safety. 

The Prayut Junta passed a military-monarchy biased constitution in 2017, leading to a 2019 election under a system that ensured the government was controlled by the military and its close allies within the Thai elite classes. Under the new parliamentary system, Prayuth was reappointed prime minister by a joint session of parliament, where the senate is composed of 250 military appointees and the lower house with 500 elected members of parliament. As prime minister, Prayut is not a member of any house of parliament and has shown to threat elected parties with contempt. 

The third largest political party in parliament, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party, supported by middle-class youth for strongly opposing a military led government has been banned. Thananathorn, himself faces criminal charges. This action brought a lot of disappointment on the part of Thailand’s youth. Earlier this year, Thanathorn held a number of street protests against the government before the emergency decree came in and severe Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, forbidding any group assemblies. 

The young, educated, and primarily middle-class generation of Thais feel blocked by Institutional and systematic barriers preventing them expressing views has led them to generally see that the country should be governed for all Thais including those without a voice. Double standards, hypocrisy, massive corruption in the military and repressive attitudes of the elite have led to social media criticism and the growing momentum of the student protest movement seen on the streets today. 

Politics and violence within Thai politics are the symptoms of social and economic inequality that have led to a continual cycle of elections that returned Thaksin surrogates to power, followed by protests, violence, and coups. The student movement believes that without real reform of Thailand’s institutions, this cycle of doom will never change.   

Monarchist groups that are coming out in support of the monarchy. Most of them are made up of civil servants and teachers, led by their superiors. In contrast to the students, their age ranges from 45 years and up. Over the last few years, many civil servants, teacher, police have been sent to live in community service retreats to attempt to develop staunch loyalty towards the monarch at the Bangkok headquarters of the Army First Infantry Regiment, which is directly under the Thai King’s control. These people are given the task of promoting the monarchy through their respective services by organizing devotional events supporting the monarch. Civil service retirees make up numbers in marches of devotion towards the king. 

Many provinces also have appointed groups of village scouts, some of which are armed. The pro-monarchy movement has become much more conservative over the past half decade since the coup that brought Prayuth to power, with many within the movement regarding the monarch as the custodian of the political system. 

It will be interesting to see how many from within the middle class today are willing to support the Royalist Yellow Shirts, where a hardcore was once able to inspire big crowds at their protests before the 2014 military coup. Only a couple of thousand turned out to a demonstration in support of the monarchy at a park in central Bangkok, earlier this week. Many ex-PAD supporters are now working within government administrative organizations around the country. However, those within the private sector are finding now times difficult economically. 

In addition to demands for democratic reforms, the students are also critical that an oligarchy of big business including national companies such as Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, ThaiBev, King Power Group, Boonrawd Brewery and Central Group, which strongly support Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), and by default, the junta. These companies have grown substantially during Prayut’s tenure as prime minister. The large conglomerates are the ones which reaped more economic benefits out of the Junta than any other groups. 

The students are yet to be joined en mass by other groups although rural northeast Thailand, has been neglected by the junta. This is Thaksin’s former base and there is a growing sense of impatience. 

Many – the Red Shirt remnants – feel an arrogance from members of the establishment towards them. Some are waiting for the opportunity to return to the streets of Bangkok to seek retribution for the harsh treatment they received after the 2014 coup. However, unlike the Thaksin period, the student protests appear to be based upon support from the middle classes, rather than the rural poor. 

The elite and establishment managed to keep the masses out of the political picture until Thaksin took power in 2001. History doesn’t provide any optimism for the student movement standing against the establishment. This will particularly be the case if the reincarnated Yellow Shirts are allowed to reign the streets again relatively freely. 

Thailand has lost half a decade in the campaign to improve social equity. The economic divide is now wider than ever before. Reform of the monarchy will remain a taboo subject. The subject wasn’t brought up in the special parliamentary sitting next week. Neo-feudalism has encased Thailand’s administrative structure and governance and it is extremely difficult to see how this could ever be reformed. 

Thailand’s middle-class younger generation are stuck with the baggage of Thailand’s past, with the concept of treating all Thais as equals is many generations off. This is totally against what the ruling establishment stands for.  It is not an optimistic picture. 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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