The Low Down on the Trouble in Thailand

Thai PAD seize airport
I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately about the situation over in Bangkok, where I live. Many people I know are stuck here or have had their travel plans disrupted because of the recent airport seizures. I’ve been in Thailand since the 2006 coup, and I’ve never seen the political situation this bad. Usually, Thais go out of the way to avoid hurting the economically important tourist industry or inconveniencing foreigners. Moreover, they always try to keep a good face forward for the international community. The recent seizure of both Bangkok airports by the opposition group, the PAD, has shattered that, and now Thailand is sitting on the brink of political, economic, and international collapse. It’s really sad to see such an awful situation in such a beautiful and normally friendly country.

This whole mess started back in 2006, when former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a military-backed coup. Thaksin was corrupt, and he got a little too public with his corruption. Everyone in Thailand is corrupt, right on down to the corner police officer, but Thaksin showed it off. They ousted him on those grounds, but that was just a front. What really got the army and its backers was that Thaksin moved power away from them to the rural areas of the country. Originally buying their votes, he cemented his popularity among rural voters by doing things for them—building schools, hospitals, and extending credit to them. He treated them like people and not second-class citizens, something the elites in Bangkok never did. Between the loss of power, a fraud-filled election, and Thaksin’s corruption, powerful people had had enough, and in September 2006, the military ousted him in a coup.

A Bit More BackgroundThaksin Shinawatra
After a new constitution and the banning of Thaksin’s political party (Thai Rak Thai), a new election was held and, unsurprisingly, the new pro-Thaksin party, PPP, won because of rural voters. The opposition charged fraud. After a few months, they started protesting, using the name the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Then in August, they overtook the government house and have been there ever since. Police efforts to break up the protesters ended in bloodshed, with the government being blamed. However, the public has grown weary of the PAD and support has been dwindling. Their name is misleading, as they actually want to end democracy and have officials appointed based on profession and social group. This would return power back to them and away from the rural populace, who they deem too ignorant to understand the issues. However, the rural population has been given a say, and they aren’t likely to give that power back.

The Current Situation
In a brazen move, the PAD seized the airports last Tuesday and have held them ever since. They have moved in guards and weapons and have set up barricades, refusing to move unless the current Prime Minister resigns. The government has refused to give in, and both sides have refused calls by the army for a new election. The government has yet to use force on the protesters and shows no signs of doing so, further paralyzing the country. Yesterday, the police made arrangements to provide security for the protesters. It was a shady deal and only confirmed that the PAD (yellow shirts)—a mixture of the urban elite, ex-military, and royalists—have powerful backers.

The government supporters, the UDD (red shirts), started holding rallies yesterday and have moved to the constitutional court to block a ruling on the dissolution of the government parties for election fraud. Violence hasn’t been that bad, but there have been isolated incidents between the rival factions. What happens this week with the court and the king’s speech on Thursday will dictate how things go.

Thai PAD seize airportThroughout the week, the situation has only gotten worse as the government has failed to act. With the court set to rule on the dissolution of the PPP, supporters are only going to scream silent coup. The airport looks to remain closed for a few more weeks, at least.

This is about more than corruption. It’s about the nature of government and power and who has it. Though the yellow shirts say this is about corruption, the PAD is equally corrupt. The Bangkok governor just resigned for corruption. They also buy votes and, for 500 baht a day, bodies at the airport. Thaksin, despite all his flaws (and there are many), took power from the urban elite and finally gave the rural poor a voice. As the urban elites have watched their power dwindle, they’ve gotten bolder and bolder. Despite Thailand being the land of smiles, there’s a still a very, very large gap between the urban rich and the rural poor here, and the urban rich look down on the poor as uneducated and backwards. As Reuters said, “The supporters of the alliance are largely middle-class citizens who say Thailand’s electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argue that the rural majority—the Thaksin camp’s political base—is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly. “

The Future?Thai UDD supporters
The future doesn’t look bright. The king’s birthday is Friday, and I suspect both sides will lay low out of respect for him, especially since both sides claim to be working for him. But you need to ask—where is he in all of this? He garners feverish support in Thailand and is probably the only man who could force a compromise. However, with each passing day, people are beginning to wonder if he has any power left. The window for him to force a compromise is dwindling, especially among the poor. Politics is about “what you have done for me lately,” and Thaksin has done something for them lately. The King hasn’t. He loses a lot of credibility by just keeping quiet.

The damage is done, though. There will be no high season this year, and an expected one million people will be out of work because of the drop in tourism numbers (including me, as I work at the airport!!). No one’s going to want to come visit now. Most tourists are canceling their vacations, and many that are interviewed here just want to leave and never come back. This will only deal a knockout blow to an industry already suffering. Exports (and even the mail) haven’t been able to leave, and in an export-based economy, this will hurt badly as investor confidence shrinks and people are wary about putting money into this country. I suspect many airlines will also be wary about using Bangkok as a major hub from now on. The PAD have acted selfishly in closing the airport and have dealt a blow to an already crippled economy.

I don’t believe there will be African-style civil war, but there will be a lot of blood spilled before this thing’s over. Thailand will be relegated to the sidelines of the world for a long time. Each passing day only makes it worse.

For more information on Thailand, visit my guide to Thailand travel.

  1. What a mess. Even if there is some sort of compromise, there’ll always be some sort of residual anger from one side or the other. These two groups sound like they’re way too far apart to come to any agreement soon. At least it’s not violent…yet.

    My selfish side wants something to be resolved soon so I can book my plane ticket for February.

  2. It’s such a tragic situation, I feel very sorry for the Thai people who will suffer because of all this.

    I think you’re right about the King – he does appear to be the only person who could potentially stop this but he’s shown no inclination to. I imagine this will lead to a big drop in support for him from many people in the country, especially the rural poor.

  3. Thanks for providing some background on the situation in Thailand. I, and I’m guessing many others, didn’t really understand what was going on there until reading your post. Sounds like a lose-lose situation right now.

  4. I agree with you. It’s such a selfish act, especially during this peak season, when many many Singaporeans would head to Bangkok for shopping. I had intended to head there end-December for a shopping getaway, but with such a situation, I’m really wary of booking any tickets, what if the airport shuts down again? Even my friend who has a trip coming up mid-December is considering switching it to another country.

    I really feel bad for the people affected by this. The airport, the hotels, the shops which thrive on business from tourists. Thailand had always, in my memory, been a land of smiles (except for the occasional cab drivers who insist on driving you elsewhere). I hope there can be a peaceful solution to this soon.

  5. mike

    The PAD is so full of shit. As you say, they are no less corrupt than anyone else associated with (Thai) politics. They want to revoke the right to vote from the poor, and they are playing a zero-sum game with these awful tactics. Thailand stands to lose, no matter the outcome of this mess–and all the more should the PAD succeed. What do they think they will accomplish? Unfortunately, this has gone on for too long now, and I fear that they won’t back down. In my opinion, the army chiefs have committed treason for the recent coup, as well as their refusal to support the democratically elected government. It is also tragic that the King neglects his people, who still hold him in such high regard. Do not be mistaken: he has considerable power, yet rarely exercises it. Thais claim that he is just being tactful by staying out of politics, but this claim sounds more and more hollow with each passing day.

  6. Thanks for concise summary and for mentioning the king’s role (or non-role). I keep waiting to hear him step in, but he seems to be sitting this one out. It’s really sad – Thailand is such a beautiful country with lovely people, it’s terrible to see that it seems to be descending into chaos. Everyone loses if that happens. Good luck to you!

  7. Hi Matt, thank for the insight of this awful situation which affected always the majority of the common people not part of that “elite”.
    I don’t want to sound selfish but should tourist really be worried about it? I am asking it since we have already arranged our flight to be in Thailand by February which was going to be the highlight of our trip much dreamt as always heard about the beauty of this country and its great welcoming and friendly people.
    We will start though our trip for the bottom up to Bangkok. From the media it seems there are also incidents in the south of Thailand and adviced tourist against heading in this part as well of course Bangkok. Since you have been living there for a while you are probably experiencing this in a different light and should people really avoid to visit Thailand in the short period? Are you fearing for your safety?

  8. Matt,

    its sad its come to every crisis, its the civilians who are to suffer..

    Maybe this is not the forum to say this, but am just replying to the comment u left on my blog wrt Mumbai terror and ” cooperatg with Pak.” its sad that the internatl community thinks that we need to cooperate with them, when it has to be the other way around..they are harbouring terrorists and not us and we do not believe in having negotiations with someone who is hell bent on destruction.. would u believe in cooperating or having discussions with the taliban ? This is a war against terrorism and many lives have been lost..i think the intl community shd stand by us now.

  9. Thanks for this informative post!

    I felt sorry for the Thai people when I heard about these troubles. Also for the tourists who got stranded on the airport and couldn’t leave. This was truly a selfish act of the PAD and I hope the situation will improve for the better sooner rather than later.

  10. I’ve been to Thailand many times and was really saddened to hear of this event. Sadly, countries spend many years to build up their tourism industry and that can be hurt in a quick hurry. I suspect India will cop the same with the horrid events in Mumbai. So many local people get hurt by this that rely on tourism – they are the ones who are really punished. And this on top of the monsoon that only occurred a couple of years ago which hurt the SE Asian countries too. Let’s hope that it all gets sorted quickly and smoothly.

    Your point re the king is interesting. Maybe his age is starting to count against him – revered but simply no longer the capacity to make the key differences that he this grand man has been able to manage over so many years.

  11. James in Thailand

    I have to agree with Mark H above – leave the King alone, he is not as sprightly as he used to be, and what if he chose a “side”? what if this caused more problems than it solved? The King’s point is that democracy should have nothing to do with him, and everything to do with people power. What I don’t understand is why the government opposition do not try and court the powerful rural vote during election time too… or is that just not palatable? P.s. Good site Matt, I hope you find another job soon, I know I’ll lose my job here due to the financial crisis soon :'(

  12. What seems to be lost on the Western media is that this has been an entirely peaceful protest over an internal political problem. I’d get on a flight to Thailand tomorrow if I didn’t have other plans! And the rubbish about Australians being stuck in Thailand for days is unbelievable in the Oz media! I mean hello – its only an overnight bus/train trip to Phuket or you u can make an international connection from Chiang Mai or Koh Samui or even as far away as KL. If the airlines haven’t been offering these options its because it costs the airlines money to do so! And the passenger are too sheep-like to insist!

  13. Sam

    I do not feel too sorry for Thailand – the country’s elite and military rulers have chosen to keep power and money in the hands of the few. Even the aid that came in to benefit Tsunami victims in 2004 mostly went to the rich elite and army.

    Democracy doesn’t work here because the elite do not want the ordinary people to have a say. In the words of a learned Thai friend of mine – they just want to keep the population ‘stupid’. When they are not happy, they just “have another coup”.

    My friend works in a hospital and whenever the government makes a disbursement to them, the management find ever-increasing ways to redirect it into their pockets, rather to where it is intended.

    The local school, on open days, has a car park of Mercedes Benz, whilst at the same time children do not have adequate supplies of learning materials.

    Matt, you mention people losing faith in H.M. The King because he is doing nothing. I’m not sure I would quite agree with that. Everyone I know here is completely unquestioning of the King. He simply cannot do any wrong. Still, one has to say that, otherwise one would be arrested and put away in jail for several years, on Lese Majeste charges!

    Thailand will not change until the government invests properly in education, bringing the stupid uneducated population out of the dark ages and into the 21st century. Until then, the country will continue to be held to ransom by corrupt military and Bangkok Elite.

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