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Bangkok Protests: Reading Beyond the Red

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 24, 2010

Can Thailand get out of its seemingly intractable political crisis, now going on five years and counting? Thousands of red-clad protestors remain camped out on the streets of Bangkok, railing against the elites who deposed Thaksin Shinawatra and the subsequent government. They’ve enjoyed significant support from working class men and women in Bangkok. The elites – the army, elite business and politicians, the monarchy, the bureaucracy – have tried everything to stop them. As the knowledgeable Thailand blogger Bangkok Pundit notes, the elites tried to keep the protestors from coming to Bangkok by banning their cars, lavishing money on entertainment in the provinces to keep them in town, and other tools – though it didn’t work. Elite Bangkok media, like The Nation newspaper, portray the mostly nonviolent red protestors as rural hordes planning to pillage the capital.

I don’t see much chance of this divide getting narrower anytime soon. As I note in a forthcoming piece in the London Review of Books the fundamental truth is that most Thai elites, having tasted democracy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are afraid of its impact. Democracy, which would empower the rural poor, would dilute Bangkok elites’ economic and social privilege, and make it harder for them to topple governments they didn’t like, a Thai tradition. At the same time, the rural poor and other red shirts have grown so furious since Thaksin was forced out in 2006 that, if their party came to power again, they likely would take any measure possible to punish Bangkok elites. And no one speaks about the eventual demise of revered King Bhumibhol, who has held the political system together.

This week, The Economist has a lengthy feature on the ailing king’s ultimate demise, but because of strict lèse majesté laws, the magazine is not being released this week in Thailand. This even though the king has publicly said that he should not be above criticism, yet in recent years royalist elites actually have cracked down harder on anyone accused of defaming the monarchy.

What’s needed, then, is both simple and difficult. Thailand needs concessions and a serious, open debate about the future of the monarchy. The king has tried to encourage this, but so far has failed. Thailand also needs to hold another election – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva seems reluctant to call one – and for all parties, including the military to respect the results, even if a Thaksin proxy party triumphs. Elites simply will have to become accustomed to some loss of power. At the same time, any party elected mostly by the working class will have to realize that it cannot just trample on the long-held privileges of the elites, or run the risk of inflaming Bangkok sentiment again. Other populist leaders, like Brazil’s Lula, have learned as much, and prospered as leaders with a broad popular base. Such a leader is possible in Thailand – but as protests drag on, it looks less and less likely.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by AndrewDover

    How do you explain deaths of soldiers if the red protesters were mostly non violent?

    Having read portions of the Nation through the last few weeks, I think you have mislabeled the reporting, which has been reasonably fair. The editorials have a point of view to be sure.

    Judge for yourself at

  • Posted by northen east man

    absolutely agree, dynasty, royalist back up the Thai social problem

  • Posted by Worn

    I don’t think that Thaksin proxy party will be win easily for new election. Northeatern area may be a bit easier to win for Thaksin support party but please dont underestimate Nawin party (Pumjaithai. Also, if you talk with 10 I-san poeple (5 will be red, 3 will be yelow & 2 not choose) so red is not totally win. North except Chiang Mai, Thaksin has less popular after violent last year!! see from some replaced election last year in norht.

    Please re-mind that Thaksin win election in the north & norhteast due to he can accumulated the old MP of that provinces togther & his popular among Bangkok poeple. He has less popular now in Bangkok & also osme of MP in his proxy party may separate from PueThai party. Therefore, Thaksim is difficult to win.

  • Posted by Worn

    one more!! you dont really understand Thai culture enough. Many of your analysis seems unfair….. You have not discussed about hidden armforce for red!!! South Thai/Central Thai has poor rural either and most of them are not support red — many provinces in North & North easter have less support in red!!!

    I think as I’m Thai, more than half of Thai have not picked side yellow or red. We can know who did wrong. Yellow sealed the airport is wrong/ red& Thaksin just want power back & dont think about countries.

    so why , there is multi colour — eventhough red called them the re-branded yellow but I dont think so. I have observed the group — many are sutdents/ actors/street vendor/ countryside workers ( not a yellow group)

  • Posted by Nick

    It seems to me that Worn is being overly optimistic about the election results, if there will be any. I live and work in Thailand and if you move North of Ang Thong and Saraburi you will feel the difference you are entering Red land. As for Poom Jai Thai under Newin, they are pretty much lost and will only join the winning side of the election to ensure the funds keep flowing as is the same for the Chart Thai Pattana party. When they hold a new election do not be surprised to see Pue Thai Party nearing 300 seats!

  • Posted by Nick

    It is also surprising and disturbing to see that so many ‘intelligent’ highly educated people from Bangkok are so easily brainwashed and mislead.
    The truth is out there!

  • Posted by Nick

    Many people complain of Thaksin buying votes with benefits to the people and populist policies, welcome to the world of democracy!

  • Posted by Tony

    The Economist, another publication of dubious credentials, and it is a matter of fact that Economist wonk Sam Moon is working on behalf of Thaksin Shinawatra as a PR man.

    I presume conflict of interest is a term you are blissfully or conveniently ignorant of.

    What Thailand needs to do is give amnesty to everyone involved who seeks it, and for those who wish to continue on, charge and punish them with high treason, including members of the Peua Thai Party who literally led the mobs in the streets from the front.

  • Posted by Steve

    If AndrewDover thinks The Nation’s reporting (and implicitly that of its only slightly less disreputable rival Bangkok Post) “has been reasonably fair”, he presumably regards the likes of Fox News as a paragon of balanced reporting without a trace of agenda. Does he ever get beyond the crossword?

    In the article itself, one thought in particular jumped out: “Thailand needs concessions and a serious, open debate about the future of the monarchy. The king has tried to encourage this, but so far has failed.” I struggle to think of any example of such encouragement beyond his one comment in 2005 i.e. “The King can be criticized”. In any event, that remark has not stopped those around him from using the LM laws to muzzle any and all criticism….. and the number of those LM actions has actually increased under Abhisit’s tenure. The result is a continuing mass self-censorship in Thai media that makes it taboo to even examine let alone discuss the issues of monarchy.

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