The King's Speech
Unlike most other young democracies, Thailand has a unique institution that, during the worst periods of conflict, was supposed to serve as a neutral mediator, a means of resolution as a last resort. Although Thailand ended its absolute monarchy in the 1930s, the constitutional monarchy that remained had far more informal power -- and respect among the public -- than constitutional monarchs in Europe. And because the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has sat on the throne longer than almost any other monarch in history, he has amassed enormous quantities of goodwill among the Thai public (though any real survey of Thai opinion toward the monarchy would be impossible, since harsh lèse-majesté laws make criticizing the king and his family a serious crime.)
The king rarely intervened directly in public, but through a network of allies and advisors he indirectly wielded power, shaping governments and the country. Usually, he favored conservative governments run by an oligarchy, the military, and big business. During the Cold War, according to his biographer, Paul Handley, when King Bhumibol saw communists taking over neighboring countries and killing their royal families, he saw clearly that allying the palace with military dictators was the best way to save the throne and protect the country's development. When the Cold War ended, however, the Thai military badly bungled a takeover of government in the early 1990s, resulting in shootings of middle-class Bangkok protesters, and the king's position seemed to shift. He called both the protest leaders and the head of the Thai Army in front of him in May 1992 and publicly shamed them. The Army backed down, paving the way for civilian rule and the expansion of democracy in the 1990s. The king's reputation was only enhanced, but because he had helped solve this crisis so well, Thais felt little impetus to build any other institutions (a supreme court, for example) that could serve as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. After all, they had the king.
In the early 2000s, the king's more conservative side once again showed itself. Thaksin was the first politician who could potentially compete with the king's popularity among the poor, and the monarch also may have feared that when his son, a man far less beloved than he, eventually took over the throne, the palace would no longer have the same influence, especially because it was widely believed that Thaksin had cultivated a close relationship with the prince. This time, when the Thai Army launched a coup in 2006, the king quickly took sides. He gave the coup-makers an audience and essentially proclaimed their government legitimate.
From there, the monarchy further inserted itself directly into politics and, by so doing, deprived Thailand of the last potentially impartial institution it had. The queen publicly appeared at a memorial service for an anti-Thaksin demonstrator, while the king gave public messages to the judiciary that were interpreted, by Thais and foreign observers alike, as telling them to use their power to go after pro-Thaksin officials.
When, a year after the coup, the armed forces allowed another election, another pro-Thaksin party won a majority in parliament, sweeping the votes of the poor. (Thaksin remained in exile, though still possibly pulling strings.) But the judiciary then came up with tortured ways to ban this party from politics, eventually paving the way for an army-backed, pro-elite party, the ironically named Democrat Party, to take over in 2008, in a backroom deal sculpted by the armed forces. The Democrat Party and its allies quickly began ramping up use of the lèse-majesté laws to absurd proportions as a weapon against dissent. According to scholar David Streckfuss, the number of lèse-majesté prosecutions grew nearly one-hundred-fold between 2000 and 2010. In recent months, the government sentenced an elderly man, sick with cancer, to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages critical of the king, though the court could not even prove that he sent the messages or knows how to use text messaging. This month, the man died. The government also sentenced a U.S. citizen named Joe Gordon to jail for translating portions of a biography containing some critical analysis of the king. Most recently, it has launched a lèse-majesté case against a girl for allegedly defaming the monarchy while she was in high school, the youngest person charged yet.
While theoretically protecting the monarchy, this increasingly hard-line policy has actually had the reverse effect. For the first time in decades, Thais are beginning to question the influence of an aging and clearly very ill king once viewed as all-powerful, benign, and even divine, and promoted by a propaganda campaign just short of Kim Jong Il levels. Meanwhile, the king rarely leaves the wing of the hospital where he has lived for several years, and he is known to have lived a separate private life from the queen for more than a decade. According to journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, who followed several public rallies in 2010 in Bangkok, he found participants yelling foul anti-king and anti-queen slogans, unthinkable just a few years ago. Online, in certain forums that evade the censors, such criticisms are common, and when I traveled over the winter to the north of Thailand, the heartland of the poor, I was shocked by how willing many ordinary Thais were to offer subtle put-downs of the palace to a foreigner they had never met before.
Rise of the Rural Poor
In the 1960s, or even possibly in the 1990s, Thailand's military, palace, and elites might have succeeded in taking back control of the country following a coup. (Thailand has had 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of the absolute monarchy.) But in today's era, Thailand's poor no longer gives in so easily. And so, in the Rashomon-like puzzle of trying to figure out just who is pushing this once-vibrant country over the brink, the poor too have now begun playing a destructive role.
Thailand's poor, furious that their votes seemed to have been overthrown, organized themselves to fight back and adopted many of the aggressive, undemocratic, and violent tactics of the middle class and elite protesters who had toppled Thaksin in 2006. Some groups of the poor, called the "red shirts" for their trademark color, did not want to employ violence or tactics that could paralyze government, but they were repeatedly stymied by hard-liners in their own red-shirt movement.
Like the Bangkok media that demonized the poor, red-shirt radio stations and publications in the north and northeast primarily began to demonize Bangkokians, calling for attacks on them and killings, as well as comparing urbanites to homosexuals and deviants. Groups of red shirts attacked the Democrat Party prime minister in 2009, shutting down an Asian regional summit and seriously embarrassing Thailand, which had to cancel the meeting. The clashes spread that year to Bangkok, where protesters and residents fought pitched battles on several streets. Rather than trying to get his supporters to cool down, from abroad Thaksin egged them on, essentially calling for all-out war and providing financing for many of the red-shirt groups.
After hundreds of thousands of red shirts descended on Bangkok in the spring of 2010, a smaller, harder-core group of them settled into a more permanent encampment in the center of Bangkok, where they blocked traffic and shut down part of the central business district. They refused to leave; the Thai Army and the pro-elite government refused to use basic, well-tested nonviolent means to clear the streets, instead turning quickly to soldiers firing high-velocity live bullets throughout the downtown, even hunting down unarmed protesters and ambulances. Eventually, the clashes between the protesters and the government resulted in the death of at least 90 people in May 2010 and arson attacks on many buildings in downtown Bangkok. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of protesters who survived were then detained by the security forces, often without charge.
Ultimately, in July 2011, another election was allowed, won again by a pro-Thaksin party -- led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister. Still, the election has solved little, and today Thailand sits on a precipice, with all sides prepared for more violence. Yingluck has made an informal truce with the armed forces and, apparently, the palace, but her red-shirt supporters will not live with a truce for long. By all accounts, Thaksin, now feeling his oats, is preparing to return to Thailand this year in order to probably play an even larger role in politics again. This spring, he held a large rally in neighboring Laos and pronounced that he would be returning shortly, sending his backers into ecstasy. Meanwhile, according to several articles by writers close to the military, the armed forces -- whose leadership is intensely royalist -- is preparing for his return by removing anyone seen as potentially pro-Thaksin, shoring up its senior officer corps, and essentially preparing for a possible coup. And so, Thailand's deadly cycle could begin again.