Having lived in Bangkok on and off for the past 7 years, I’ve thought quite a bit about the current constitutional crisis within Thailand. I’m not really qualified to offer any opinions and as an appreciative guest of Thailand I wouldn’t feel comfortable making any ethical or political judgements. However, for those interested, here are my thoughts about the crisis and how it affects tourism in the county.
As a start, it is worth pointing out that Thai opinion in the capital seems to be largely positive about the latest military coup. It is seen as a stabilising move in a country which has been riven for months if not years, with internal divisions. It is seen by many people as a chance to try and step back and work out a way forward. There has been little or no disruption to our normal tourist activity with guests able to come and go in the normal way. With the lifting of the curfew to the hours of between 1am and 4am (and a further lifting expected this weekend) life has very much been carrying on as normal in Thailand for ordinary Thais and tourists alike. From my perspective in Bangkok, there has been no visible change at all – I’ve seen no evidence of the military or any protests at all.
A bit of background first of all.
Thailand has been is a state of constitutional breakdown and dysfunction for many years now, trapped in a cycle of failed democracy. Various incarnations of the same party have won the last five elections and have always been removed from power one way or another, be it through military coups, mass demonstrations or high court verdicts.
It’s not a black and white issue, but to try and summarise in a nutshell we have two opposing sides, represented these days as the ‘Reds’ and the ‘Yellows’. Essentially, both the Yellows and the Reds are affiliated to the two main power brokers in the county – the traditional establishment backing and funding the yellows and the Reds, backed and funder by Thaksin and the new super-wealthy in the north who are vying for long term power. Both sides are nominally pro-monarchy. It is also possible to think of it as essentially a north/south divide. The Reds are backed by the super-rich of Chiang Mai (Thaksin et al) and control almost all the northern provinces. The Yellows essentially represent the south and are backed by the rich and influential of Bangkok. Provincial demonstrators from both sides are brought in to joining mass demonstrations in Bangkok.
The Reds are grouped around fugitive ex PM Thaksin and a handful of other, often wealthy, militant leaders from across the north and east. Thaksin is one of the richest men in Thailand and bankrolls the entire operation. Thaksin’s entry into mainstream politics changed the entire nature of the political spectrum here. His Thai Rak Thai and, later, Peua Thai parties were the first in Thai political history to really reach out to the rural poor of the north and east. Using the media and cleverly targeted pledges, Thaksin has become a massive force in politics and, even in exile, remains one of the key players in ongoing developments. He is seen by his supporters as a no-nonsense, gutsy business man, who gets things done against the odds stacked against him.
The yellows are generally from Bangkok and the south. They are seen as representing the Democrat Party although there is no official direct link. They tend to be passionately pro-monarchy (although both sides periodically use this argument against each other). They see the Reds as anti-monarchy and dangerous. They claim they are fighting to protect Thailand’s heart and traditions. They are now lead by Suthep – a former senior democrat with his own share of political baggage. They have been the ones demonstrating most recently in Bangkok and have, in effect, brought down the government again. Despite often be characterised as being the rich, the Yellow’s numbers are swelled by the middle-classes and millions of urban people of different classes. Their essential demand now is for constitutional change before further elections.
The catalyst for these last few months of increased tension seems to have been the attempt by Yingluck (Thaksin’s sister, the last PM) to start the process of bringing Thaksin back to Thailand via the back door and a political amnesty. There was massive opposition to this move and Thaksin was found not to have as much support as expected and was outmanoeuvred pretty convincingly this time. All the anti- Thaksin groups (there are many of them) were mobilised into action together.
There are further issues, which, as a guest in Thailand it is not appropriate for me (or anyone for that matter!) to speculate on in this forum, but that is the basic outline of the situation as I understand it.
The Recent Coup
This latest move by the army can be interpreted in many ways and it’s still not entirely clear who it benefits most or what its impact will be. From the travel point of view I think we can focus on the positives and leave the wider implications of army involvement in civil life for another forum. The positives are that the violence on the streets over the last few months (which admittedly had been much calmer recently) will be brought to an immediate stop. Similarly, the potential for greater conflict between the two opposing sides has been temporarily removed. Protests are still allowed, but the army will keep the opposing groups apart, apparently. Suthep will not be able to lead his ‘final battle’ now either, but neither will he likely have to face justice for many of his illegal and aggravating activities. A stalemate has effectively been enforced, for now.
The upcoming election was looking like a very dangerous potential flashpoint, so anything that can restore a bit of calm and order is probably welcome in this respect. Recent history would also suggest that the army do not want to actually run the country in the long term (the 2006 coup backfired in many ways beyond achieving its goal of removing Thaksin). They may have wider objectives – time will tell. I do think though that it is important not to rush judgement or be sensationalist at this stage.
It is also important to see this in the wider context of the history of democracy in Thailand and the region at large. Thailand is probably the most advanced country in the region, democratically speaking, but even then it is a relatively young democracy that has failed time and time again. According to wikipedia, since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has seen 11 successful coups, 23 military governments and nine military-dominated governments. Therefore, there is nothing particularly out of the ordinary about this.
Implications for Tourism
In real terms this doesn’t actually mean that much to most people at the moment. Life goes on as usual around Bangkok and in the country as a whole. Immediately following the coup a curfew was announced which was honoured more in the breach than the observance and has now been partially lifted. Some censorship has been announced with a minor shutdown of Facebook, perhaps a warning shot by the new government. I suspect tourists will see little or no indication that it has even happened during their holiday and I would see absolutely no reason why anyone planning to visit Thailand should re-consider their plans.
Please note: I haven’t added photos to this blog. When I popped out to take some just now, I couldn’t find any military on the streets!