Thailand has continued its struggle to expand democracy since the absolute monarchy was ousted in a 1932 coup—when Siam became Thailand. Most coups and protests in Thailand have been relatively bloodless compared to the Philippines, where election violence is the norm. But once in a while, the death toll stacks up to heights that terrify Thais. As of May 18, 37 people had died in two months of protests, the bloodiest since the “Black May” protests in May 17-20, 1992, which killed at least 52 according to the official count.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane back to the early 1990s. Thailand was one of the fastest growing countries in the world and Asia’s fastest in 1990, with real GDP growing at a brisk clip of 11.6% y/y. Commander-in-Chief Suchinda Kraprayoon led a coup in February 1991 to topple a civilian government widely perceived as corrupt, although some believe corruption was merely the red herring to obscure the personal ambition and military contempt for democracy that drove the coup.
A year later, parliamentary elections were called and five pro-military parties won the majority (54%) of seats by a slim margin. The coalition government announced civilian candidate Narong Wongwan would be prime minister, but Narong withdrew his name on accusations of drug trafficking. Australia had placed Narong on a blacklist, and the U.S. denied him a visa in 1991 for his purported links to the heroin trade. The coalition government instead appointed General Suchinda Kraprayoon prime minister even though he didn’t run in the election. Suchinda accepted the position and ordered troops to fire on demonstrators who protested his appointment. The demonstrators were mostly students, people from the middle class and the opposition parties.
The 1992 protests ended with royal intervention. The king sat the leaders of the two warring parties down and talked some sense into them: “What is the point of anyone feeling proud of being the winner, when standing on a pile of ruins and rubble?” Opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang agreed to cease hostilities, Prime Minister Suchinda resigned and civilian Anand Panyarachun succeeded him as prime minister. Back to 2010: Will the King step in like he did in 1992? Unlikely. The octogenerian’s health is faltering, and this time there is little consensus on what is the right thing to do beyond ending the violence. Should the King exonerate Thaksin? Should the government roll back the five-year ban on more than a hundred pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party politicians for violating election laws? Should the anti-Thaksin ruling party dissolve for also violating election laws?
Since the publication of the RGE Backgrounder on the Thai political crisis, written during the Yellow Shirt protests of 2009, the leaders and pretexts for the protests have changed. But the root cause for Thailand’s numerous uprisings remains the same: the expansion of democracy. The country’s rule has spread from the royal few to the military then to the civilian government, in which distrust of universal suffrage still brews. Next down the line may be the urban working poor and the rural majority of Thailand, who are waging the current battle.
Would that make Thaksin Thailand’s Mao? The apparent lack of ideology motivating the protests since Thaksin’s removal from power in 2006 suggests this is neither an Agrarian Revolution nor a Cultural Revolution like those of China. However, Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saiku did proclaim this protest as the beginning of a “class war.” At this point, it seems Thailand is at an impasse short of a military coup. The government refuses UN mediation. The king is silent. Protesters distrust the judiciary, which has become politicized. This latest episode of class warfare, if that is what it is, can end by compromise or attrition. Out-funded and out-equipped, protesters may just have to take a compromise and come back to fight another day.