Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND: State of Anxiety

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND: State of Anxiety

Article excerpt

"Today, Thai people are without hope ... there is no certainty in their lives".1

This statement came not from one of Thailand's many academics or social critics, but from a popular young entertainer, Patcharasri "Kalamare" Benjamas. She was writing about the national anxiety epitomized by the extraordinary cult of Jatukham Ramathep amulets which seized Thailand in late 2006 and the first half of 2007.2 Deeply uneasy about the economy, politics, and the royal succession, Thais bought tens of millions of these much-hyped amulets to protect them from adversity. For a variety of reasons, 2007 was a troubled time for Thailand and for Thais.

After a period of exceptional stability following the promulgation of the reformist 1997 Constitution, which gave rise to the dominance of Thaksin Shinawatra, from 2001 to 2006 and culminating in the military coup of September 2006, Thailand was again reverting to messy and fractious multi-party politics.3 Yet this was not a simple reversion to pre-1997 realities, and the disunity was not now a matter of mere party differences. The messiness of pre-reform politics had been restored, alongside an explicit clash between two distinct yet inter-related power networks which went to the heart of the modern Thai state. As former Thaksin spokesman Jakrapob Penkair put it:

I didn't see this as a struggle for democracy, I see this as a war against aristocracy. I want to rid aristocrats and dictators who join hands in robbing the liberty and the power of the people through the coup.4

The year 2007 saw the contested nature of Thai politics acutely revealed. The nation was bitterly divided between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - who had been ousted in the military coup of 19 September 2006 - and his opponents. Thaksin's supporters came from a range of backgrounds; they included many rural voters in the north and northeast who supported Thai Rak Thai's (TRT) "populist" rhetoric and programmes, as well as elements of the middle classes and business community who applauded his criticisms of the bureaucracy and the country's traditional institutions - including the palace. Simplistic readings of Thailand's politics as "two countries", the city against the rural areas, were not validated by events.5 Neither did Thaksin's opponents represent a cohesive force, but included supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, those affiliated with or sympathetic to the forces of "network monarchy",6 and swathes of ordinary voters (including many urban or middle-class voters) who had been alienated by what they saw as Thaksin's arrogance, his authoritarian tendencies, and his questionable actions while in power. Thaksin had divided Thailand as never before; the coup leaders, who were assumed to have the backing of the palace,7 spent 2007 waging an ultimately futile propaganda war against Thaksin. Even though the former prime minister remained physically absent from Thailand throughout 2007, as a result of a self-imposed exile reflecting concerns for his safety, Thaksin was the most influential, most discussed and most feared figure in the country - the invisible but omnipresent man of the year.

The year 2007 started, literally, with a bang: eight small explosions rocked Bangkok, killing three people. Were the bombs the work of dissidents in the military, Thaksin loyalists, or some other group? Despite claims and counter-claims, no satisfactory answers to these questions emerged. These mysterious and neversolved bombings proved a metaphor for the year's politics: each fresh development, each setback for the military regime fronted by former privy councillor General Surayud Chulanont, raised questions about the degree and nature of Thaksin's involvement, as well as the extent to which anti-Thaksin moves were linked to the palace. When Samak Sundaravej agreed to become leader of the People Power Party (PPP), he claimed he wanted to clear Thaksin's name of the charge of disloyalty to the crown, arguing that "But now when the military powers use the monarch to run a smear campaign against [Thaksin], this is bad enough. …

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