Asia Pacific

The World This Week: Might Thailand Turn Into Paradise Lost?


© RoBeDeRo

August 14, 2016 23:50 EDT

Thailand is deeply divided on class and regional lines, with the Bangkok monarchist elite engaged in a brutal battle with the Shinawatra clan as a Malay-Muslim insurgency rages furiously.

This week, bombs went off in Thailand’s tourist towns. This came as a rude shock to much of the world that has come to see Thailand as an idyllic paradise with magical food, sublime natural beauty and sensuous sex. This paradise-like reputation is a godsend for tourism, making it roughly 9% of the $395 billion Thai economy. It also helped Thailand bounce back rapidly after the 2004 tsunami. These bombings threaten to tarnish Thailand’s reputation profoundly.

Prima facie, the attacks were minor. Eleven small bombings across multiple cities barely killed four people. By contrast, there was much more violence elsewhere in the world. A suicide bombing in the Pakistani city of Quetta killed 70 people. In Brazil, a vicious drug war rages in Rio despite the fortune authorities are spending on security for the Olympics. In Syria, fighting intensified in Aleppo with rebel groups and regime forces going hammer and tongs at each other.

So, why are bombings in Thailand more significant?

Thailand is going through a protracted political crisis. Yet this crisis has not led to mass violence or civil war. Even terror attacks have been few and far between. In particular, the idyllic tourist destinations in the southern part of Thailand have been untouched by violence. With these bombings, to quote William Butler Yeats, “all changed, changed utterly” and a terrifying monster has been born.

As Al Jazeera observes, the bombings occurred on “the eve of Queen Sirikit’s 84th birthday and just before the first anniversary of a Bangkok shrine bombing that killed 20.” Germans, Italians, Dutch and Austrians were among the injured. Significantly, the bombs exploded a few days after Thai voters supported a draft constitution backed by a military-appointed committee.

Needless to say, this constitution has many opponents. Since 2014, the military has ruled the roost after a rather messy coup. Barely 55% of the 50 million eligible voters turned up to cast their ballot. In the run-up to the referendum, campaigning was banned and dozens were detained. Thailand’s biggest political parties have rejected the constitution.

Thai authorities are claiming “domestic sabotage” by the losers of the referendum. They rule out both international terrorism and separatist insurgents fighting Thai forces in the three southernmost Malay-Muslim provinces. Independent observers blame these insurgents as the bombs bear their signature style. Furthermore, the bombings took place on the anniversary of the disappearance of Haji Sulong Abdul Kadir al-Fatani. Haji Sulong is a hero for Malay-Muslims and is widely presumed to have been killed by the Thai military in 1954. Over the last 12 years, a bloody Malay-Muslim insurgency has killed more than 6,000 people.

Despite such bloodshed, the Malay-Muslim insurgency is a sideshow in Thai politics. The country is currently cleft in twain in a bitter struggle for power. On one side is the Shinawatra clan, led by Thaksin Shinawatra who was a popular prime minister before the military ousted him in a 2006 coup. On the other side is the Bangkok establishment led by the military junta, with General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current prime minister, as their big boss. In 2014, Prayuth ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, after months of anti-government protests. It was Thailand’s 12th coup since 1932.

At the heart of the polarization in Thailand is a class and regional divide. Prayuth is supported by urbanized, middle-class citizens and established elites in southern Thailand. Thaksin’s power base lies in the rural northern and eastern parts of the country. Each time when one side has been in charge, the other side has protested raucously. Thailand is bitterly divided between “yellow-shirts” who support the military junta and “red-shirts” who are followers of Thaksin.

The roots of this division go back into the past.

Thailand’s ruling elite sided with the United States in the Cold War. The US Army Center of Military History dutifully records how their loyal ally actively participated in the American misadventure in Vietnam. In return, investment flowed into the country, turning Thailand into a manufacturing economy. Transportation, construction and urbanization boomed. The greatest beneficiary was Bangkok as it exploded in size, wealth and importance. Bangkok continues to be the beating heart of the Thai economy. A recent 2013 presentation by Pathitta Nivatvongs of the Industrial Estates Authority of Thailand shows how Thailand’s industries are largely centered in or near the national capital.

Just as in trade, there are winners and losers in modernization. In Thailand, the winners have been the military, the judiciary, the middle classes of Bangkok, the beneficiaries of the tourist economy of the south and those with old money. The losers have been the toiling peasants in rural areas, the urban poor in sprawling slums, minorities like Malay-Muslims and even refugees like the Hmong. Put simply, the winners are those who created and profited from modern Thailand. The losers are the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the winners.

As David Streckfuss brilliantly observes, Thailand draws its self-identity as the only country in Southeast Asia that was not formally colonized by a European power. To paraphrase the words of Streckfuss, the implications of Thailand’s historical narratives are two-fold: Thai history has been continuous and Thai culture has retained its pristine identity. These seemingly compelling national narratives are disingenuous. Thais managed to avoid formal annexation only by ceding territory, doffing their caps to Europeans and packing off their high-born sons to places like Eton. Siam or Thailand became a de facto colony, an informal part of first the British and then the American Empires.

The bombs that went off this week demonstrate that Thailand is reaching a tipping point. Unless Thailand’s nouveau riche elites and entrenched establishment can act wisely, paradise might well be lost.

Chulalongkorn, the venerated late 19th century modernizing monarch, learnt from the Europeans and tried to create a Thai nationalism in place of the age-old decentralized mandala model that operated in Southeast Asia. In 1887, he established Thailand’s Royal Military Academy to create an elite officer corps that would both put down the local nobility as well as deter foreign aggressors. Damrong, Chulalongkorn’s intellectual half-brother and second-in-command, created the modern Thai administrative and education systems.

More importantly, through the key 1892 military and political reforms, Damrong set out to “dissolve all dependencies and half dependencies” and “to make all the people Thais, not Lao, not Malay at all.” Vajiravudh, Chulalongkorn’s Sandhurst-trained and Oxford-educated son, went further. He conjured up the myth of a distinct Thai race that had fought both the Chinese and the Europeans to retain its freedom. All subjects in his kingdom had to become Thai whether they liked it or not.

Forging disparate people into a unified nation state was bloody even in England and France. In Africa and Asia this was bloodier still. Thailand is no exception. The Cold War brought a new dimension to Thai nation-building. From the 1950s, Thai traditionalists with the support of their American godfathers sought to keep the communists at bay by restoring the prestige of the monarchy. They set out to create a society based on order, hierarchy and religion. Instead, they created what The Economist has rightly termed “a right royal mess.”

Even as royal worship became the norm, oppression, corruption and poverty continued to be the fate of those at the bottom of social order and in the hinterlands. Unsurprisingly, peasant revolts broke out in the 1970s. Then, students and professional classes sympathized. As Hans U. Luther chronicles in fine detail, the revolts were crushed ruthlessly. The military and its right-wing vigilante groups murdered both student and peasant leaders. A frightening number of killings took place in the Chiang Mai region, Thaksin’s home and core support base, even as Thai nationalism reached its apogee.

Thaksin represents the biggest challenge to the Bangkok political elite. He shares the same name as Taksin the Great, another Thai Chinese leader with overweening ambition. Taksin was a general who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya in 1767 to become king. He made Bangkok the new capital of a renewed Thai kingdom but did not last long. Taksin was deposed by General Chao Phraya Chakri whose dynasty continues to sit on the throne and commands veneration in much of the land.

In fact, such is the veneration that King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a virtual god in Thailand. The king also conveniently owns a colossal amount of wealth. Unlike Queen Elizabeth II or Emperor Akihito, Bhumibol wields real power behind the scenes and is above any scrutiny.

This opacity about the role of the king is maintained through lèse-majesté laws that can only be termed draconian. They command: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” Infuriatingly, there is no definition of what constitutes violation. Besides, lèse-majesté charges are rarely made public and their hearings take place behind closed doors. This gives too much power to Thailand’s infamously conservative judiciary. With such ample room for interpretation, judges delight in inflicting severe penalties such as sentencing a 61-year-old grandfather to 20 years in prison.

Thailand is facing great strain because the cult of the king is under threat. This is not because Thais are turning irreverent, but because the 88-year-old king is proving to be palpably human. Bhumibol is spending increasing amounts of time in the hospital. This puts the spotlight on the crown prince whom Jonathan Manthorpe has described as “a wastrel and a vindictive womanizer.” Even the crown prince’s mother has conceded that he is “a bit of a Don Juan.” This prince is also aloof, arrogant and awkward, making him uncomfortably unpopular. Unsurprisingly, Manthorpe is one of many who believe that the crown crisis could tear Thailand apart.

Even as one dynasty declines, Thaksin is creating another one. He comes from one of the richest and most influential families in Chiang Mai. He was an officer in Thailand’s famously repressive and incorrigibly corrupt police force where he rose to be a lieutenant colonel. Thaksin’s contacts in the police and the military helped his early business ventures. He made his fortune as a telecommunications billionaire thanks to a monopoly contract by his friends in government.

Like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Thaksin rose to power through unbridled populism. The plutocrat-politician incongruously harnessed anti-elite resentment and became prime minister by promising wealth for the farming heartlands. In power, he fulfilled his end of the bargain by providing microcredit and dollar-a-treatment health care. Unsurprisingly, he continues to be wildly popular among his supporters.

Yet Thaksin’s legacy has a dark side. In 2003, he launched “a war on drugs” that has proved to be every bit as disastrous as the one waged by Americans. Thousands died or disappeared, but the drug trade continued to flourish. Thaksin’s strong-arm methods also poured fire on the flames of the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand. He abolished key conflict-management structures and ignored military advice to negotiate with the insurgents. Extrajudicial killings became the norm and so did attacks by Islamic rebels.

Thaksin’s conflict of interests as prime minister and business tycoon made many of his supporters uneasy. In a March lunch with the Financial Times, Thaksin worryingly compared himself to Donald Trump and painted an unflattering self-portrait. This arriviste uses facial serum to polish his skin, flaunts a top-of-the-range Patek Philippe and brags about spending 2 million baht (approximately $60,000) on the most expensive wine in the world. In exile, he has spent his time investing in the likes of “biogenic biomedicine” and Manchester City.

Worryingly, Thaksin treats his political movement like a family fiefdom. Yingluck, his sister whom he once famously described as his clone, is now the big boss of his supporters. The Shinawatra clan certainly wins elections and has many supporters, but it has shadily corralled far too much wealth and is another royal dynasty in the making.

Currently, Thaksin is on a charm offensive with Americans, Europeans and even Australians, singing paeans to democracy. At the same time, Prayuth is determined to persist with the status quo even as the king’s health wanes. As the red-shirts battle yellow-shirts, “the Salafization of Islam in Southeast Asia” in general and Malaysia in particular is radicalizing marginalized Malay-Muslims in Thailand’s southernmost provinces.

The bombs that went off this week demonstrate that Thailand is reaching a tipping point. Unless Thailand’s nouveau riche elites and entrenched establishment can act wisely, paradise might well be lost.

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Photo Credit: RoBeDeRo

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