Posts Tagged ‘thailand red shirts’
Earlier this week, several U.S. Southeast Asia experts testified in Congress to make sense of the bloody political violence in Thailand during April and May, which claimed 89 lives and led to almost 2,000 injuries. I don’t endorse any of these views, but I do think they contribute to understanding what occurred.
Richard Cronin of the Stimson Center argued that “the most significant underlying cause” of the violence was “the inability of the political system to adjust to the intersection of rapid but highly unequal economic modernization, which itself has been driven by globalization”.
He pointed specifically to well-meaning constitutional changes passed in October 1997 that made it more difficult to remove former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power:
The process of political adjustment to rapid change inadvertently was made more difficult by the “People’s Constitution” of October 1997…in reaction to repeated coups and unstable cabinets, their aim was to reduce corruption and a lack of accountability that has kept Thai politics in constant turmoil and also empower the traditionally marginalized populations outside of Bangkok. Unfortunately, several of the provisions backfired. As intended the document led to the replacement of revolving cabinets with a strong executive, but the consequence was a classic “be careful what you wish for situation” [ie. the election of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra].
After railing against Thaksin’s “strong authoritarian tendencies”, which included using “government largesse to consolidate his base”, an “anti-narcotics campaign”, as well as “the Shin Affair”, Mr. Cronin continues:
Much has been made of the fact that the Army overthrew the democratically elected Thaksin government, but not nearly enough attention has been given to the fact that constitutional changes enacted in late 1997 practically made it impossible for Thaksin to be dislodged by democratic means. The problem for the anti-Thaksin opposition in early 2006 was that under the 1997 Constitution members of parliament cannot switch parties or form coalitions within 90 days of an election. Thus, a collection of parties carrying out a highly publicized anti-Thaksin movement could not join to form a new party before the election or attract any dissident TRT members to their cause.
Karl Jackson, who directs the Southeast Asian studies program at Johns Hopkins, is also convinced that the violence was a symptom of glaring inequalities in Thailand:
Economic growth and rising levels of income inequality frequently go together during the process of economic development. What has happened in Thailand may become a textbook case in the political tensions that can be generated through the mal-distribution of rapidly rising national wealth.
Thailand was the world’s most rapidly growing economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Half a century of rapid economic growth had brought a significant reduction in overall poverty but inequality had been increasing between the top and the bottom 20% of the society. The upper 20% of households earns nearly 15 times as much as the bottom 20% of households. By this measure economic inequality is now greater in Thailand than in the Philippines or Indonesia.
The second dimension of inequality in Thailand is a geographic one. Most of Thailand’s wealth is concentrated in and around Bangkok while most of the votes remain up-country where poverty reduction has lagged. It is this imbalance between Bangkok (where the money is) and up-country (where the votes are) that explains the current Thai crisis.
Finally, Thailand…entered the mid 20th century as a very traditional and hierarchic society at whose heads stands a genuinely loved monarch, King Bhumipol [who has ruled 46 years]. Fifty years of rapid economic growth and social change now require a new social contract between political forces residing primarily outside of Bangkok and the traditional Bangkok dominance of the political and economic life of the country. The moral authority to lead this change resides with King Bhumipol…..
Mr. Cronin adds on this point:
It seems less than coincidental that many of the 36 buildings torched by Red Shirt militants fleeing the army included icons of globalization and the growing income gap between the immediate beneficiaries of economic growth and those who view themselves as left behind. The latter include the urban poor and farmers from the hard-scrabble rural northeast. The targets included the Stock Exchange, banks, and Central World Plaza, a huge shopping mall devoted largely to global luxury brands that was formerly the World Trade Center.
You can watch a full webcast of the hearing here.