The New York Times

April 14, 2010
I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor

Thai Expectations


BANGKOK — The chaos and bloodshed that erupted on Bangkok streets is a brutal reminder of the law of unintended consequences. The 2006 military coup that deposed the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and subsequent use of the courts to keep his allies out of power, have raised a specter more dangerous to entrenched interests than Thaksin ever was.

The longer this confrontation between red shirts and the military-backed government continues, the less important will be Thaksin’s own role as opposition leader-in-exile and the more powerful genuinely radical forces will become. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s departure is now likely, which should calm the situation in the short term, but some of the conditions for the rise of leftist demagoguery or Peronist-style rightist populism clearly exist. Thailand is in uncharted territory and analysis of the many past coups and confrontations provide little guide to the future.

Thaksin was an astute billionaire who abused the power that his party’s dominance in Parliament gave him. But his pro-poor spending won him popular support without being fiscally irresponsible or undermining Thailand’s tradition of open markets and private capital. Many of today’s class-warrior red shirts have scant regard for Thaksin but are riding on his supporters’ backs toward what they hope is more radical change than he espouses.

Once the red shirts were viewed by their opponents as a Thaksin-financed rabble of rural poor. But the evidence in recent days is that they enjoy the sympathy of large numbers of Bangkok’s own lower-income groups — taxi-drivers, street vendors, security guards and construction workers. Even those most inconvenienced by the demonstrations, the tens of thousands dependent on tourism and other disrupted businesses, are not all on the side of law and order.

The legacy of the demonstrations will be lasting. Even the military top brass is not sure of where it now stands, with some urging compromise on all sides to avoid more bloodshed, which would test the loyalty of the rank and file, many of whom are considered sympathetic to the red shirts. Other state institutions, notably the courts, have also come to be widely seen as politically motivated.

Enough Thais have been shocked by the score of recent deaths that compromise will most likely win out in a society where politics is more opportunistic than ideological. The Thai economy is built more on small farms and businesses rather than great estates or industrial combines. But compromise will have to recognize the rising expectations of low-income groups, not only for more equitable income distribution, but also for greater political representation.

Expectations have been fed by Thaksin’s rhetoric and by Thailand’s lively media. Economic fundamentals too now favor the poor. After three decades of low birth rates, Thailand has little growth in its workforce, so the bargaining power of lower-income groups is increasing. Bangkok’s middle class now has to rely on maids from Myanmar to cook and clean. Income distribution is actually no worse than the average in developing Asia — and better than in neighboring countries like Malaysia and China. Moreover, the Thai economy has been growing steadily. But in Thailand’s open and homogenous society expectations have been growing faster. They must now be satisfied.