Red Democracy, Yellow Democracy: Political Conflict in Thailand: Jim Ockey Backgrounds the Recent Crisis in Thailand and Warns That the Current Calm May Not Persist

Article excerpt

In the past, popular demonstrations were aimed at bringing about democracy. This time it is about the nature of democracy.

(A Yellow Shirt leader) (1)

Over the last five years, there have been frequent political struggles in Thailand, led, on the one side, by Yellow Shirt demonstrators and, on the other, by Red Shirt demonstrators. Most of the analyses of the recent political conflict in have focused on social divides, with many Yellow Shirts coming from urban areas and Red Shirts from rural areas. Others have focused on class differences, noting that many Yellow Shirts are middle class, while many Red Shirts are poor. While these characterisations are certainly accurate, to think of the conflict in only these terms is to overlook one of the most troubling aspects of the conflict: it has also divided many communities, and even many families. These types of divides are more personal, and thus in some ways more worrying, and yet cannot be explained by class or geography. To explain this aspect of the conflict, we have to examine the concerns each side has with the political process.

We can trace the origins of the current political crisis back at least as far as the Asian Financial Crisis, which began in Thailand in 1997. The financial crisis hit when the Bank of Thailand was unable to defend a weakening baht, and its value was halved overnight. Having used up most of its foreign reserves in its failed defence of the baht, the Thai government then turned to the IMF for help. Although Thailand was facing recession, the IMF insisted on austerity policies as a condition of the loan--the opposite of the stimulus packages generally used during recessions--and the recession deepened as rich, middle-class, and poor Thais all suffered heavily. Only a few who had substantial investments and assets denominated in foreign currencies prospered.

The Asian Financial Crisis had a profound impact on Thai politics. Many among the rich had previously supported several political parties, to ensure they would have a voice in government. As wealth eroded, they began to limit support to one party, leading to a consolidation of the party system, and a division of the wealthy according to political party. Many of the poor struggled to get by, highlighting the need for a safety net in times of crisis, and setting the stage for populist policies. It was the largely new middle classes, however, that felt most vulnerable, as they struggled to hold on to their hard-earned status. They fixed blame on the political system, and particularly on vote-buying and corruption. This deepened the divide between the middle classes and the poor, who, the middle classes believed, undermined democracy by selling their votes, and between the middle classes and the rich, who bought the votes, and then gained the investment back through corruption in office. Thus the Asian Financial Crisis set in place the social divisions that would be evident in the later political crisis.

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In 1997, middle-class concerns were addressed in a new constitution, ratified shortly after the financial crisis. The new constitution established a series of commissions and courts (made up of middle-class technocrats) with the ability to investigate corruption and disqualify candidates for election, or remove politicians from office, up to and including the prime minister, in some cases on limited evidence. The constitution also required a university education for election to the parliament, effectively excluding the lower classes from the parliament.

Thaksin's rise

The first election under the 1997 constitution took place in 2001. Among the parties contesting this election was a new one, Thai Rak Thai, led by telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. He put together a party made up of many former MPs, offering to help finance their campaigns in return for joining his party, so that his new party had more former MPs than any other party. …