Thailand Runs Red
Standing on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road last month, I watched the cavalcade of Red Shirt demonstrators on their way to dump hundreds of gallons of blood at the entrance to the prime minister’s home. Aside from a few pedestrians who watched with transparent sadness and anxiety, everyone was at least pretending to have a great time. But it was clear, even at that point, that the Red Shirts were not there to make friends or negotiate; their list of demands would be met or they would have to be forcibly removed.
Any talk of organized political factions identifying themselves by the color of their shirts and hitting the streets in the name of an iconic, misunderstood, and persecuted leader should make Westerners—of a certain age and experience, at least—uneasy. In the case of Thailand’s insurgent Red Shirts and their rivals, the pro-government Yellow Shirts, apprehension would not be misplaced. The behavior of the Red Shirt leader, exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, reeks of demagoguery. He and his rivals personify political immaturity and irresponsibility.
Perhaps because social ethics have always been the business of the monarch, Thailand’s democratic institutions exist in a state of arrested development. Free and reasonably honest elections produce parliaments that pass laws and governments that administer them, giving the appearance of democratic process. But legitimacy—a matter of identity and loyalty—resides elsewhere: in this case, with a 1,000-year-old, very Buddhist monarchical system that has somehow survived into the modern era.
We tend to think of monarchies in European terms. Are they absolute or constitutional? Does the monarch reign or rule? Although the Siamese kings had complete personal control of decisions until the 1920s, the most significant roles of the monarchy here have always been more subtle. Culturally, the monarch is the embodiment of national identity and custodian of the ritual purity necessary to sustain harmony in the complex universe of Theravada Buddhist cosmology. This is how the chaos that stalks neighboring Burma or Cambodia has been kept at bay here.
Thai people believe quite sincerely in all of this, and there’s a substantial body of historical evidence that the system works. But now the monarchy is under domestic and international attack in unprecedented ways; it may indeed be failing.
Most Thai people I talked to believe that if the monarchy were functioning as it has in the past, Thailand would never have reached this level of social discord and political instability. The “shirts” are symptoms, not the cause, of this crisis. Sophisticated Thais fear that neither the West nor China understands their monarchical system or takes any interest in its preservation.
Throughout the turmoil that afflicted the region in the decades after the end of World War II and European imperial rule, Thailand has managed to navigate treacherous waters with superb skill. One of the cognomens of Chairman Mao was “The Great Helmsman.” In this part of the world, proven repeatedly over 60 turbulent years, the undisputed Great Helmsman is a quiet, gentle, wise, vastly experienced man named Bhumipol Aydulet, otherwise known as Rama IX, the ninth Chakri Dynasty King of Thailand. His personal virtues have undergirded one of the few remaining indigenously legitimate systems of state to survive the twin Western plagues of imperialist rapacity and communist vandalism.
An anecdote will perhaps illume the depth of anxiety in the psyche of Thais who fear for the monarchy. In the late ’80s, I watched the film “The Last Emperor” in a Bangkok theater. The movie depicts the compelling personal tragedy of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, who was overthrown in 1911 and wound up as a Japanese puppet-prince in the doomed creation called Manchukuo. The story had a real meaning for Thais, who are well aware of the horrors that befell their Chinese cousins as the delusion-ridden Imperial court gave way to an unremitting sequence of disasters—war, economic collapse, famine, plagues, tyranny, and vicious repression of a scale and duration inconceivable to Western sensibilities. Thais know that their kings responded realistically, even proactively, to the rise of Western and Japanese power, and their system persisted without any serious disruption.
The moviegoers knew about Ne Win’s lunatic “Burmese Way to Socialism” next door and the Cambodian holocaust on the other side. The people of Laos and Vietnam, trapped in tyranny and living in the rubble of devastating war, seemed to be the best off of the neighbors. Thais I spoke with left that movie feeling good about themselves and even better about their beloved Rama IX. It’s been an impressive run. But Rama IX is 82 and ill. His successor, the crown prince, is clearly a problem, and opportunists like Thaksin abound.
Part of the mystery of the monarchy is sustained by taboos that are often misunderstood by Westerners. One concerns speaking about the king or royal family as ordinary humans. You do not discuss the king’s illnesses, speculate on his death—or its aftermath—and you certainly do not gossip. But the behavior of the 57-year-old crown prince over the last several decades has obliterated that last prohibition. Stories depict a willful, rage-filled sociopath, the utter antithesis of his father. They are far too consistent not to be believed; the negative perception is nearly universal.
Uncertainties surrounding this inevitable transition have festered for decades, yet no solution has emerged. There has been talk about naming as successor the oldest royal sister, whose behavior fits traditional expectations, but it is perhaps too late. For the first time in 250 years, men of ambition can see wiggle room at the top. The potential candidates for Thailand’s new Nasser, Sukarno, or Idi Amin are legion—and are just as vicious and unprincipled. Thaksin invokes the language of democracy and social justice, but the prospect of his acquisition of personal power, by any available means, is what his Red Shirt movement is all about.
The multibillionaire former prime minister is one of several elected officials who made fortunes in the grey areas between governance and business when Asia’s Little Tigers were booming. These men emerged as leaders of regional business/political/administrative alliances, playing musical chairs as governments came and went, always positioning themselves to ensure that enormous infrastructure contracts went to their partners and allies. The system is definitionally democratic; representatives are elected. But they are essentially regional or class-based economic warlords with gigantic amounts of money and large organizations rather than vicious little armies deployed to promote their ambitions.
Until now. As we go to press, the Red Shirts are growing increasingly militant, and have succeeded in crippling large sections of Bangkok for more than a month. At $70 a head—$240 if you bring a vehicle—renewable as needed, the revolutionaries are, by rural Thai standards, very well paid. And the financial ability of Thaksin and his allies to keep a 30,000-strong cadre disrupting the capital is nearly unlimited.
In tandem with menacing social peace, Thaksin has no scruples about extending his threat into spiritual realms. Without getting into the animist implications of ritual contamination, dumping thousands of gallons of human blood on the thresholds of Parliament and the homes of politicians is a particularly dirty tactic and a direct challenge to the monarchy’s ability to sustain ceremonial purity. The closest analogue comprehensible to Americans might be the point in Hurricane Katrina when coffins began popping to the surface. Most everyone who saw that felt, metaphysically, that this was no longer just a mess. Suddenly something profoundly disturbing had been loosed. But at least this was not done by an individual in ruthless pursuit of his personal agenda.
In thrall to delusional ambition, Thaksin disrespects everything that has made Thailand work so well for so long. Given his methods, it’s hard to buy into any of the supposed virtues of his program, as many Western observers do. There are undoubtedly severe social and economic inequities in Thailand, but anyone who thinks this is really about that is not paying very close attention to Thaksin and knows nothing of the history of peasant violence in this part of the world. It’s as patronizingly clueless as a parent fussing over bad table manners while junior sits there smoking a crack pipe.
Neither Thaksin nor his rivals are likely to deliver salvation through democracy. They have built their careers inflaming regional and class-based divisions. The monarchy has always been there —by collective consent—to keep everything from getting out of hand. But if its legitimacy falters, civil order will only be maintained through repression. This country that has been a haven for countless refugees and a delight for millions of visitors could soon find itself—as its neighbors have— in unspeakable travail.
To stanch the bloodletting, the Thai government may feel that it has to give in to Thaksin in the short term. It is playing a difficult hand badly. But reinstating him would only motivate his many imitators and rivals who are entirely prepared to engage in identical tactics. Retributive violence could quickly spin out of control.
The clampdown required to stop such chaos would be severe, and the Thai people, having never experienced a heavy hand, would probably test the limits, creating a genuine human-rights disaster. Western governments would predictably go ballistic, establishing sanctions and other punishments, but—as in Burma—would have no impact on the people making the decisions. Hillary Clinton has weighed in, arbitrarily enjoining both sides to resolve this “peacefully.” Such comments are gratuitous when one side is trying desperately to avoid violence and the other is determined to provoke it, and they tend to reduce, if not nullify, the ability of responsible, pro-Western Thai leaders to influence events.
Legitimate institutions are forged over time as culture and belief systems, interacting with events and personalities, produce identity, consensus, and stability. When these underpinnings of civil order fail or are destroyed, they tend to be very difficult to reconstruct—especially from oceans away. And regional actors aren’t without interests of their own. Thaksin is unpopular with China, which has repeatedly demonstrated it has no time for political figures in its bailiwick braying about democracy to secure Western support. And the PRC is well aware of the threat posed by cycles of peasant violence. It is not in its political or economic interests for the turmoil promoted by Thaksin to engulf a prosperous neighbor.
I recall a conversation over 20 years ago with MR Tongnoi Tongyai, secretary to the king. We were talking about Burma and activist Aung San Su Kiy, then as now under house arrest. He noted, “These democracy and human rights people think the PRC is the devil. They will get nowhere with that attitude.”
The West may have an interest in installing its institutions in Thailand, but the devil wants a quiet neighbor. At this point, after weeks of upheaval, and with the prospect of more to come, many Thais surely crave the same thing.
Jim Pittaway is a licensed psychotherapist. He resides and practices in Missoula, Montana.
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