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Protests Exacerbate Thailand’s Political Divide

November 20, 2013

For the past month, thousands of protestors have gathered at Democracy Monument and other areas in Bangkok to protest a controversial amnesty bill that was crafted to absolve anyone who may have engaged in illegal activities from 2004 through August 2013. Although this bill was rejected by the Thai Senate by a vote of 141-0, the government could technically resubmit a fresh version of the bill six months from now. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has pledged not to reintroduce the bill. However, her opponents are concerned that her elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as one of the key and most controversial beneficiaries of the blanket amnesty, will push for its revival from his base in self-imposed exile.

Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, known as “red shirts,” are staging their own demonstrations around the country in support of the governing Pheu Thai party. Both the red shirts and the opposition Democrat Party have their own television channels to broadcast speeches made by politicians and others. Each night one can flick from one channel to the other to view the name-calling and insults lobbed between the bitterly divided rival factions.

Unfortunately, demonstrations seem to be having the effect of exacerbating the political divide, endangering Thailand’s long-term political stability and likely adversely affecting its economy. Now that the amnesty bill has been defeated and the Pheu Thai government (and Mr. Thaksin) realize they have miscalculated in imagining that the bill would pass the scrutiny of opponents and even some elements of the red shirts, demonstrations led by the Democrat Party have arguably assumed the moral high ground and have emboldened organizers. What initially started as anti-amnesty bill demonstrations have morphed into protests to get rid of the Pheu Thai government. But this government was elected in a credible democratic process. There is little doubt that, if a snap election were called, the Pheu Thai party would win again – perhaps losing some seats but with no threat to their majority. The reason is simple: most of the Pheu Thai supporters represent the rural poor and since 2000 they have consistently voted in favor of Mr. Thaksin and his party.

But Thailand is facing some truly significant problems, even if politicians on both sides of the political divide are not focusing on the issues that will have lasting significance for the people of Thailand. First and foremost is wealth inequality. Despite Thailand’s remarkable economic development over the past three decades, rising inequality is a problem that is getting worse, not better. The richest 20 percent of Thais possess about 70 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent hold just 4 percent. This leaves the remaining 60 percent of the population holding just 26 percent of the wealth, putting great economic pressure on Thailand’s lower middle class, and the Pheu Thai’s political base. Bangkok, which has 14 percent of Thailand’s population, receives 70 percent of all government expenditures in health, education, and other key services; whereas in the Northeast – the largest and poorest region of the nation and home to 34 percent of the population – receives only 6 percent of these key public expenditures. Despite the popularity of Mr. Thaksin’s populist policies (village development funds, low interest agricultural loans, and subsidized universal health care), his policies actually widened the income gap. But the Democrat party is equally as culpable, as they adopted and continued to implement these same policies when in office from 2008 to 2011 hoping, in the words of a senior Thai official who confided to me, that “after a while the Thai people will think Mr. Thaksin’s policies belong to the Democrats.”

Other serious problems Thailand faces include the ongoing sectarian conflict in the South, where over 5,700 Thais have been killed over the past decade. Whether it has been the Pheu Thai or Democrat party in power, neither has been effective in developing a concerted and consistent strategy to win the trust of the majority Malay-Muslim population of the South and bring economic development to the area. After a decade of violence which has ebbed and risen in the four southernmost provinces, no one has been brought to trial and held to account for murders, bombings, and other incidents of violence that have taken place there. Corruption, despite a higher public awareness of the problem, appears to have risen and there is concern that such acceptance will only serve to erode the country’s social order. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, Thailand ranks 101st  out of 148 countries in diversion of public funds, 127th  in public trust in politicians (current demonstrations may lower this figure), and 107th  in wastefulness in government spending. Corruption only serves to adversely impact administrative efficiency and the rule of law, as well as to hinder the private sector and stunt accountability.

Thailand is not the only country that is politically divided. The world saw the U.S. government shut down in October because of incessant partisanship between Democrats and Republicans and within parties over the government’s budget and how to address the increasing national debt. At the moment, but for very different reasons, Thais and Americans hold a very negative view of their politicians in Bangkok and Washington. This week Americans will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When faced with political bickering between the Congress and his administration, President Kennedy urged: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix blame for the past, but let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”  More than half a century later, American and Thai politicians would do well to heed JFK’s advice for the good of their respective nations.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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