Thailand and the American Myth of the Protester
But why can’t all world problems fit neatly into our preconceived narrative?
Americans love a protester. It harkens back to the dawn of our country and the stories we’ve told ourselves about the Revolution. We look at protestors in the Ukraine and we see the Boston Massacre. We look at the Arab Spring and see the stirrings of our own birth, waiting to be play out across the world stage again. And sympathy for pro-democratic protestors against an autocratic regime is a storyline that plays well in our psyches. But the problem is not every protest around the world fits that handy outline, and to try to force them to fit our traditional protest narrative spreads dangerous misinformation and trivializes the actual issues at play.
Enter, then, Thailand. Thailand has been in a state of protests for several months now, although that really only describes the current round of protests. It is safer to say Thailand has been in a state of off and on protests since 2006. This latest round has been especially vicious and noticeable, especially since they have come at a time when other countries like Ukraine and Venezuela are going through similar struggles. It has thus been popping up in lists trying to explain this wave of protests, as if they’re all over the same issues. And it’s worth knowing why the protests in Thailand are nothing like those other protests.
Thailand has never had a particularly easy political history. Since absolute monarchy was removed in the 1932 revolution (a few years after which the country was also renamed from Siam to Thailand) they have had 16 constitutions and charters and 25 coups, coup attempts, rebellions, and popular uprisings. In that time there has only been one Prime Minister to serve out his full term and only one to be re-elected to a second term: Thaksin Shinawatra. This would be a notable achievement if he had not later been removed in a military coup and found guilty of embezzling roughly two billion dollars from the government.
And that’s where the last 8 years of difficulty come from. The military removed Thaksin because it claimed he was corrupt, but Thaksin had ridden to power on the backs of a populist movement he used quite adeptly. He was a former police Colonel from Thailand’s second city of Chiang Mai, and was popular both for his populist policies (universal health care and student loan funding, among many others) and the fact that he was outside the traditional Bangkok power structure (referred to as the amatya, meaning oligarchy or elites). Of course he was equally hated for his populist policies and for being outside the amatya, as well as his alleged corruption and penchant for extra judicial executions of drug smugglers.
He was removed in 2006 with a coup that happened while he was at the Olympics, which has to lead to an awkward call in the hotel room. He has stayed out of the country since then, because of the warrant for his arrest initially and then because of the trial and guilty verdict in absentia. Thailand was ruled for a military junta for a year before they stepped down, and Thaksin’s party was promptly elected again. That Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 and he was replaced by Somchai Wongsawat. Samak was removed, and this is the absolute truth, for hosting a cooking show while Prime Minister. Somchai was removed by the Constitutional Court in 2008 as well, making it the Year of Four Prime Ministers (after the military PM Surayud Chulanont, Samak, and Somchai) when Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party (the other party) was elected. This marked the first time since 2001 the Democrats had been in power, and it was largely because the People Power Party (what had been Thaksin’s Tai Rak Thai party) was dissolved.
During this time, there were internecine protests. Anti-Thaksin supporters of the Democrats, wearing yellow shirts, seized Suvarnabhumi Airport in late 2008. In April of 2009 and several months of 2010 there were large scale pro-Thaksin protests by protesters wearing red shirts that crippled parts of Bangkok, and in 2010 resulted in violence and deaths.
In 2011 Abhisit was beaten in an election, since the Democrats are really horrible at winning those, and was replaced with Yingluck Shinawatra. If that name sounds familiar it is because she is Thaksin’s sister, and the third member of the family to be Prime Minister, since Somchai was also his brother-in-law. The protests which have been going on since late 2013 accuse her of corruption and being a puppet for her brother to rule from a distance. They took to the streets when an amnesty bill was proposed in late 2013 that might have pardoned Thaksin and let him return to the country.
No Good Guys
That sets up what could be a fairly straightforward set of protests. And if it was just that a group of people, disturbed with the possible amnesty, took to the streets to protest it then there would be no issue. But the amnesty bill was soon taken off the table, and the protesters stayed. The government dissolved to hold new elections, and they stayed. New elections were held, and they boycotted them. The problem is the leaders behind the protests are not any better.
The head of these protests is one Suthep Thaugsuban, former MP and also former deputy PM under Abhisit. A member of parliament from 1979 to 2009, he has been implicated in a corruption scandal involving land sales lasting from 1995 to now, resigned from parliament to avoid being kicked out in 2009 so he could remain deputy PM, and was charged with murder in connection to his role as deputy PM during the 2010 protests. He is the founder and Secretary General of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the amusingly named organization leading the protests.
It’s amusingly named because the demand that Suthep continues to press is no less than the dissolution of the Thai government and its replacement with an unelected “People’s Council” to oversee a Constitutional reform, before a new government would be elected (presumably). This unelected council would be overseen temporarily by a royally appointed caretaker Prime Minister (an idea supported by the increasingly ludicrously named Democrat Party), would have 300 representatives from different professions chosen by the members of that profession somehow…but would also include 100 PDRC members involved of course. What could be more Democratic than a body with 100 “non-political” political appointees along with 300 other appointees dictating government changes to a people who had no hand in their selection. Incidentally this is not the first time the protest group backed by the Democrat party has called for a royally appointed Prime Minister, as they did so in 2006 before the coup as well, and it is believed by many in country they attempt to disenfranchise as many rural voters as possible.
So those are the people fighting for the future of our closest ally in Southeast Asia. On the one side you have the sister of an exiled former Prime Minister who may well be in on the corruption, but leading a party that has decisively won every election since 2001. And on the other you have protesters lead by a man whose group has the word democracy in it but who is calling for an essentially fascist party appointed by his group to reform the government the way he wants and who is supported by the perennial election losers from Parliament, but who is nonetheless bringing some legitimate points about the influence of the Shinawatra family on politics.
One side is filled with the members of one family and their cronies who want to hold on to power and have abused that power frequently. The other side is populated by people who desperately want to be in power, and have abused it when they had it—it’s worth pointing out to me that to many the issue with Thaksin was not that he bought votes, but how blatant he was about it. And one side is filled with people who subvert democracy for their own benefit, while the other is filled with people who increasingly seem to have no idea what the word democracy means.
There are no heroes or villains in the protests in Thailand, and there is no easy narrative that we can lay over it. To do so removes legitimate grievances and glosses over insane demands. It is not like other protests in the world right now, where the snipers are on one side or the deposed President immediately asks a bellicose neighbor to invade when he’s thrown out. There is no universal truth to the current season of protests, and anyone who says there is has an ideology to sell. The only truth is that the people suffering the most are the Thai people who just want a functional government, and that once you’ve taken a hit of the heady drug of Thai politics the weak American equivalent will never be satisfying.