Thursday, 5 December 2013

Thailand - Protests, un-democracy, and the elephant in the room

Thailand is currently in a dynamic situation which is changing all the time. No-one knows what will happen tomorrow, never mind next week.

Today, 5th December, is a national holiday - the King's birthday - and has been an opportunity for political tensions to relax and for people to enjoy themselves.

But the situation has changed a lot since my blog post a week ago - ministries, police headquarters and even Government House have been occupied by protestors - and will be certain to change rapidly after tomorrow.

These are not the revolutions you are looking for

As with most major protests this year - Turkey, Brazil, Egypt - the big protests in the big cities are not "The People" finally "Rising Up" against "Oppression" like some socialist prophecy. These people are middle class, cosmopolitan, and often wealthy.

This does not mean their aims are invalid, but they are usually different groups to the poorer people out in the regions who are often more traditional, more conservative, and voted in the governments being protested against.

The protestors do not want democracy

Back to Thailand. The protestors blame Thaksin (exiled ex-PM), Yingluck (Thaksin's sister, current PM) and the Pheu Thai Party (currently in power) for corruption and policies which fail Thailand.

Unfortunately, they know that if there was an election tomorrow, the government would still win.

Whether or not Pheu Thai's policies are "destroying Thailand", they have empowered the poorer, agricultural parts of the country - particularly the Northeast - and the numerical majority of Thai people would vote Pheu Thai again.

This explains the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's demands for an unelected "people's council", with a royally-appointed prime minister. This ill-defined council would rule temporarily (how long?) in order to re-work the constitution and change how democracy works - presumably to favour Bangkok, the South, and the wealthy.

Unelected Senate

While the protests began in response to the failed Amnesty bill, the main fuel of the protests becoming so big, so noisy and so angry was Pheu Thai's attempt to make the Senate (upper house of parliament) fully elected.

Being from the UK, I'm familiar with the arguments for and against an elected second chamber of parliament, but what's striking is the language used here in Thailand. Yellow-shirts/Democrats/Bangkokians say a fully-elected Senate would allow Pheu Thai to become a "dictatorship", to become a "tyranny" - purely because they are likely, at the moment, to win both houses in an election.

If you suggested to an American that the US Senate should be appointed, they would probably laugh, and almost certainly call it undemocratic.

Buying votes

There are claims of vote-buying - that Thaksin & Pheu Thai simply bribed people and threw money at them to get their votes. There is talk of missing money in Pheu Thai's flagship rice subsidy scheme, where the government buys rice from farmers above the global market rate.

These may be true, possibly, but there are 2 problems with accusations of vote-buying.

Firstly, corruption is so widespread - at all levels - in Thailand, that no group can claim to be above it. Thailand is not lawless or backward, but money talks, in every field.

Secondly, part of democracy is the majority voting for a party who will make policies that favour them. Particularly in the case of rice subsidies, this may or may not be good economics, but it is not vote-buying.

To be fair to the Democrats and protestors, Thaksin is almost certainly guilty of corruption and highly likely to be making political decisions with/for Yingluck from his exile in Dubai. (There are many jokes about Skype calls between Dubai and Bangkok.) But this should not be confused with legitimate policies made by a party elected by a certain section of society which favour that section of society.

The royal family

Amongst all the noise of politics, the is the elephant in the room which no-one wants to discuss is the Thai royal family.

As a foreigner, there's 3 crucial things you should know about the Thai royal family:
  1. Everyone deeply loves the King.
  2. Everyone deeply respects the royal family.
  3. Do not discuss the royal family with Thai people.
It is almost impossible (as a foreigner) to have a neutral discussion about the royal family with Thai people, and it is very unwise to try.

Firstly, the King is not seen as an ordinary human being, and trying to discuss him like one will be taken very badly.

Secondly, there is a law against criticising the Thai royal family, for both locals and foreigners. It is called "Lèse-majesté" and the Thai police are very serious about prosecuting if they have evidence you have criticised the royal family - and "criticise" is taken very, very loosely. This even includes previous kings and past royals.

This means that not only is there very little discussion of the royal family between foreigners and Thais, but also very little by the Thai media and between Thais themselves, outside of the private homes and mall cafés of the Bangkok middle class.

So, while Thais are very vocal and expressive about politics, there is very little public discussion about the King's health.

The King

Happy birthday King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86 today.
Photo: Wikipedia
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the longest-reigning monarch in the world. He is also very old - 86 today - and has had ongoing health issues. It's highly likely that the King will die in the next 10 years, and possibly within the next 5 or even 2.

This is a problem for Thailand. The royal family is deeply respected and seen as a stabilising force in Thailand - above the messy, noisy affairs of politics, coups and the military.

But, while everyone deeply loves the king, the rest of the royal family does not enjoy the same popularity. His heir the Prince Vajiralongkorn is certainly not as popular and is dogged by rumours and controversies. While the law was changed in recent years that one of his sisters, such as Princess Sirindhorn, could potentially inherit the throne, this is seen as highly unlikely.

The result is, anything could happen when the current king dies.
  • At best, the country mourns and finds unity in the loss.
  • At worst, political divisions flare up and engulf Thailand in a civil war.
While both of these outcomes are unlikely, it is most likely that current tensions will flare up into something equal to or greater than the problems of the last 7 years, and the problems we see today.


  1. Great breakdown, Jez. I doubt The Economist could've done better.

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