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 Background
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.
Throughout 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 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.