View a slide show of Bangkok burning.
The idea of Bangkok spiraling into total chaos -- as it has over the past week, with 40 people killed so far in street battles between anti-government protesters and the military -- is shocking to foreigners. Thailand is not Iraq, or Yemen, or Pakistan; as portrayed in endless books, tourism advertisements, and films, it's a lush and peaceful place, the type of country where'd you take a honeymoon rather than a hostage. And until recently, that image was mostly accurate -- for nearly 20 years, Thailand had avoided serious political violence.
But the unrest that has consumed the popular vacation destination since the first spark of violence on April 10 is less surprising to the Thais themselves. Thailand's idyllic image has overshadowed serious tensions that have been building for nearly a decade and finally exploded this month. Thailand's rapid, globalization-driven economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s left out a large portion of the population, primarily those living in the rural north and northeast. By some measures the country actually suffers from worse income inequality than the neighboring Philippines, even though the former is generally thought of as a modernized country and the latter is often viewed as a semi-feudal, Latin American-style economy. But the emerging anger was as much about regional cliquishness as it was about class. Resentment built among Thais who might have been poor, but more importantly felt increasingly alienated from the country's traditionally powerful institutions: the palace, the army, and the civil service, which tended to favor established networks of people from Bangkok schools, Bangkok companies, and Bangkok army training.
Yet even as Thais from the north and northeast, who make up the majority of the population, have suffered economically, over the past decade they have become increasingly politically empowered, diminishing the advantages previously enjoyed only by the elites. The Internet, community radio stations, a reformist constitution passed in 1997, and greater access to secondary education have created a rural population more knowledgeable about their rights, and more able to compare their own situation with that of other countries' citizens. The advent of real democracy after more than six decades of successive military regimes meant that the rural poor, if they united, could vote in a leader more responsive to their concerns.
In 2001, they found their man, and Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist politician and son of the north, was elected prime minister. Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, and clearly interested in using government power, Silvio Berlusconi-style, to help his own family network of companies. But he also launched social programs, like inexpensive national health care and start-up loans to villages, that had an impact. By nearly every calculation, poverty shrank on Thaksin's watch. Those efforts, along with a sophisticated advertising campaign, propelled him to an even larger majority in the 2005 elections.
But like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales in Latin America, Thaksin leavened his anti-poverty crusades with attempts to roll back the rule of law. He authorized a "war on drugs" that became a pretext for targeted killings of his political opponents, intimidated the Thai media, and undermined governmental institutions such as the courts. His immense popularity also threatened the power of the military and the palace -- particularly King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, Thailand's constitutional monarch, who was supported by the same elites and middle class in Bangkok who disdained Thaksin. In his more than 60 years on the throne, Bhumibhol had built himself into something more than a royal figurehead, accumulating political influence through behind-the-scenes maneuvering and alliance-building in Thailand's elite political and military spheres.
But rather than trying to defeat Thaksin at the ballot box, the anti-Thaksin middle class and elites opted for extraconstitutional means. Protests calling for Thaksin's ouster gave way to calls for the army to intercede; in September 2006 the military obliged, deposing the prime minister in a coup. Thaksin fled into exile, and today lives mostly in Dubai.