The current conflict and economic realities could spur divisions even in areas thought to be pro-Democrat
The clock is ticking in Thailand over
anti-government protests, with the fabric of the nation itself seemingly in
question. The confrontation has reached a stage where some may even begin to
question the nation’s presumed homogeneity, long regarded as Thailand’s
Every day it seems to get worse. On
Monday, the government announced it would forcibly boot protesters out of
government offices within 72 hours under an emergency decree. On Sunday,
advanced polling for the February 2 snap elections was widely disrupted by the
anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee and gunshots claimed the
life of a PDRC leader in Bangkok, bringing the death toll to ten since the
attempt to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office began in
What does the seemingly intractable
crisis between the forces unleashed by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, beginning with his first election as prime minister in 2001 and
worsened by the 2006 coup that drove him from office, and his enemies among the
Bangkok elites, royalists and others say about the country’s presumed
Certainly by Southeast Asian
standards, the Malay minority in three southern provinces and a few hill
peoples in the north and west, have been relatively small problems historically
for a nation that otherwise has one religion, broadly one language and one
king. Indeed the dominance of the nation/religion/king ideology has been so
strong as to make accommodation with the Malays seemingly impossible, leaving a
festering insurgency to continue for well over a decade.
No solid Bangkok
For sure, the south and north and
northeast fall easily into a geopolitical split, with hill tribes and other
minorities in the north and Muslim Malays in the south. But the story in the
densely populated regions around Bangkok and in the center of the country – the
supposed heartland of anti-Thaksin sentiment and the Democrat Party ‑ is far
more complicated, and not very encouraging for the Democrats.
While the common impression is that
royalists and traditional elites dominate the region, the fact is that the
nation’s capital of more than 10 million people is not so simple. The Democrats
may face nearly as much trouble in the capital as they do in Isaan, the rural
northeast, due to social change. Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, may
reap more of a whirlwind from urban dwellers than he realizes
The 2011 elections that brought
Yingluck to power as a stand-in for her exiled older brother, may be regarded
as the nearest proxy as popular views since then are more likely to have
hardened than changed. Though in electoral terms the Democrats control the
central core of Bangkok and, in effect, most central institutions of government
– the upper bureaucracy, judiciary etc. ‑ one-third of Bangkok’s parliamentary
seats, mostly in the east of the city, are held by Thaksin supporters.
When it comes to the newer urban
areas surrounding Bangkok and along the eastern seaboard, the story is totally
different from most foreign perceptions. Democrats are hard to find in these
relatively new industrialized areas. For instance the provinces of Pathum
Thani, Samut Prakhan, Nonthaburi and Ayudhya are almost exclusively Red-Shirt
territory, to use the color code for Thaksin’s supporters.
Likewise all the seats in Chonburi on
the eastern seaboard, where huge numbers of Japanese-owned factories are
located; Laem Chabang port and the resort city of Pattaya are in the hands of a
local party run by a bigwig sympathetic to Thaksin. In other central provinces,
such as Nakhon Pathom, third parties, not Democrats, predominate.
Clearly migration from the north and
northeast has left a huge mark on the politics of the central and metropolitan
regions. These voters may combine a regional sympathy for the Thaksin camp with
class resentment against the presumptions of the Bangkok elite.
No easy coup way out
In sheer numbers, the 2011 election
also surely understates the numbers of Thaksin supporters in the Bangkok region
who might be mobilized if the current political mess becomes a catastrophic
open confrontation. Many who work in urban areas have maintained their voting
registration in their home villages in the north.
The reality is that for all the
apparent geographical divisions in Thai politics, 40 years of industrialization
and development have transformed the country’s economic geography due to the
lure of the prosperous provinces around the capital and adjoining the Gulf of
Thailand. This has not necessarily strengthened the grip of the Bangkok power
holders, especially in the face of the massive challenge of Thaksin’s machine.
Indeed, in the longer run it has probably undermined their position, which
helps explain why the military now recognizes that old-fashioned coups are no
longer easy to execute.
Two elements come into this. One is
the number of Red Shirts who can be brought onto the streets of Bangkok. They
are there already. They hardly need busing in from Isaan.
The second – and this is a
fundamental change – may be that a coup in Bangkok would not settle the issue
as was the case in the past. Such is the strength of Thaksin’s support that it
is now possible to imagine the elected authorities in Chiang Mai or some other
cities refusing to recognize a government installed by the military or the
possible machinations of the judiciary.
It seems possible that regional
resentment of Bangkok and 150 years of expanding royal and bureaucratic power
could come to the fore over the current impasse. It is now often forgotten,
even in Thailand let alone by foreigners, that the North was once the separate
Lanna kingdom, as powerful as that of Ayudhya to the south and with its own
language and writing system. After a period of Burmese occupation it split into
two smaller kingdoms, Chiang Mai and Lampang, which became loose vassals of
Bangkok. But it was only after the opening of Siam to western commerce in the
1850s and British deals with Chiang Mai to exploit teak forests that Bangkok
sought direct control.
Likewise, a large part of the
Northeast, on the west bank of the Mekong, was long part of the Lao kingdom and
to this day Isaan maintains language and cultural traits which its shares with
the lowland people of Laos, while elsewhere in Isaan Khmer ties run deep.
For sure, modern Thailand has a level
of economic integration that makes a regional break-up almost impossible.
Nonetheless, deep regional sentiments, and memories of great Lanna, Lao and
Khmer kingdoms, can play a role in bolstering the sentiments of Thaksin’s
legions in the huge areas of Thailand where they dominate – and also in a place
like Bangkok where many of them now live. ‘Asia