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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thailand: Signs not of civil unrest but civil war

"I think the Red Shirts are not Thai people because they destroyed things, they destroyed Bangkok, they destroyed Thailand," said dress shop owner Kasana Opasthanakoon, as he inspected the destruction in Bangkok's commercial centre. "My friends have shops here, destroyed, they have nothing."
Once you no longer see your enemy as your own kind, it's hard to see how you can reconcile. Maybe the country should split into the capital and royalist allies as a constitutional monarchy (ideally led by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who would be the nation's first queen, since reports suggest the present heir does not have the unifying power of King Bhumibol) , the rest of the country independent.

The problem is not exactly the Red Shirt movement. Less income inequality is generally a good thing. But Thailand's Gini coefficient has been in the 40's for a long time. The nation is, in fact, more equal than the United States, according to the CIA's 2009 report. This is hardly a nation that's ripe for revolution on income grounds. On the other hand, the aspirations of the poor in Thailand are hardly something to turn up ones nose at, as too many do.

The Thaksin Shinawatra regime instituted reforms that genuinely helped the poorer elements in Thai society, from microfinance to an increase of the welfare state to scholarship programs. The Gini coefficient did indeed move down during his administration (from slightly worse than the US to slightly better) though government revenues were certainly easier to come by in the go-go 1990's and even the early 2000's in Asia.

The problem, however, is that the poor and Red Shirts in Thailand are being bankrolled by Shinawatra, who is bizarre mixture of Silvio Berlusconi, Dick Cheney and Rupert Murdoch. A billionaire and media mogul, as prime minister he used the state apparatus to enrich himself, his family and his corporate empire.

The present conflict in Thailand, then, is essentially between royalists, old money and policy incrementalists against Thaksin, new money (equally if not more corrupt), and populist economic policies. The ultimate goal, of course, is to end the royal role in Thai politics, and maximize Thaksin's personal wealth.

The real question for me, and I am no expert on Thai politics, is the army's role in 1) continued civil unrest 2) a peaceful negotiation resulting in two different countries or 3) the return of Thaksin to Thailand. I am not sure it is possible for 1) or 3) to have bloodless results. In fact, it isn't clear to me that Thaksin can command the loyalty of the armed forces to begin with, particularly if he moves to diminish the royal family. Working for him, however, is the impending transition to a less popular royal face post-Bhumibol. That's one reason the strongest card pro-royalists could play would be to have the most popular head of state possible. From all I've read, that person would be a Queen, not a King.

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