The evolving Thai political fault lines
Over the past five years under military government, it is clear that Thailand's political polarisation has not been bridged. It has, in fact, expanded into new fault lines. Apart from the longstanding yellows versus reds revolving around supporters and critics of the established political order premised on military, monarchy and bureaucracy, we now have a clear demarcation between pro- and anti-junta and authoritarianism versus democratisation camps. Newer fault lines are generational and ideological in orientation. While some of these divisions are global in nature, bringing them in line towards a new consensus in Thailand will necessitate a kind of leadership and compromise without which the country will be unsettled for the long term.
Evidently, political polarisation is a global phenomenon, underpinned by economic inequality and runaway communications technologies. Over the past several decades, inequality has widened across societies. Unsurprisingly, capital accumulation and economic development have been concentrated in fewer hands, leaving large masses of people feeling relatively deprived. Absolute poverty, however, has declined.
So it is a paradox of sorts. Most people are actually better off in absolute terms but feel left behind in relative terms. This is where communication technologies come in. They accentuate inequality and the sense of relative deprivation, empowering those left behind toward resentment and disenchantment. Hence tensions and turmoil beset many societies in polarised ways. People tune in to their respective social media echo chambers, hearing what they want to hear, speaking to their fan clubs and fellow readers and viewers with similar mindsets and opinions. Reaching out across social divides happens less and less.
In the Thai context, this divide was catalysed and came to the fore in the early 2000s, when Thaksin Shinawatra tapped into widespread resentment among the Thai masses outside of the Bangkok establishment and middle classes in the capital and the major provinces. He also had the know-how and the resources to assemble a political party machine that has won all elections since 2001. Including the March 24 poll when his third-generation Pheu Thai party still became the largest winning party. His party machine successfully exploited this divide.
Thaksin's opponents have not been able to come up with an electoral answer to his challenge. Hence their recourse through two military coups in September 2006 and May 2014, and the judicial dissolution of the Thaksin's Palang Prachachon Party in December 2008. Without an electoral answer and yet with international and local demand for popular legitimacy, Thaksin's opponents had no choice but to come up with more constitutions and elections to get the outcome they wanted. So far, they have not succeeded. They are trying now to effect such results to keep them in power after the March 24 election, but this is likely to be fiercely contested.
So Thailand's answer has to be found somehow in the electoral arena where constitutionalism matters and the electorate are paramount, with a level-playing field where the forces of both Thaksin and his opponents are included but not dominant in determining outcomes. This is why some kind of compromise and new understanding of the rules and parameters will have to come about if Thailand is ever going to break out of this cycle of coups, constitutions and elections.
Fear and hope contrast starkly. The politics of fear means the pursuit and/or perpetuation of power through the exploitation of people's natural vulnerabilities, insecurities and concerns. It is fundamentally negative and not forward-looking to progress towards a better world through cooperation and agreement. Instead, it plays up resentment and reverts to the past as something better than the present. Only through past practices, achievements and strengths can the future be secured and be desirable. We can see this kind of fear-mongering manifested in US President Donald Trump's slogan of Make America Great Again and his government's protectionist posture and anti-migration stance.
In Thailand, the military government, backed by a broad conservative coalition, comprising those who came of age in the Cold War decades and who have benefited from the accompanying economic development, is trying to forestall the tides of change and the way forward into the 21st century. This military-led conservative coalition distrusts open politics and a fair, democratic game of elections, constitutions, and political parties and civil society.
Thai conservatives fear for their interests and roles in a political order that came from the past. Thus they rationalise their ways of power through fear and insecurity. In the Cold War, it was the fear of communist expansionism. In hindsight, we have to be thankful that Thailand was so conservative in the past because it kept away communism. But now there is no more communism to fear. So the new communism in the 21st century is corruption and cronyism, with no better evidence, embodiment and personification than Thaksin Shinawatra.
But that is not enough when new political forces and an aspiring youth movement have now emerged to challenge the conservative establishment, most vividly in the electoral success of Future Forward Party under Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. So the new rearguard action of Thai conservatives is to revert to charges of anti-monarchism and disloyalty to the crown. When that does not work sufficiently, charges of civil disobedience and sedition are applied.
This generation gap has the potential to take Thailand forward but not without tension and conflict. If we survey Thailand's demographics in view of technological changes and political dynamics over the past two decades, we are likely to see starkly different generational preferences. Older Thais who came of age and reached their political consciousness and economic status from the Cold War years are likely to be more conservative and fearful of the future where the established political order would likely have to be reformed to accommodate newer aspirations and expectations.
These generational lines generally would be those over 40 years of age, especially over 50. But others who are younger than 40 would have seen Thailand having wasted nearly two decades of political crisis and turmoil, marked by coups, constitutions, and elections. These younger Thais, who flock to social media technologies unlike their forebears who were socialised and indoctrinated through state-run TV and radio, want change probably because they don't want to see the best parts of their lives and careers squandered and constrained by endless political crises. So when a young leader like Mr Thanathorn and a political vehicle like Future Forward come along, they went for it en masse.
We will likely see tension because the younger generation will probably harden in their ways for change and progress in the 21st century, whereas the older generation will likely not budge and soften in their conservative views. The political belief systems of the young are predicated on popular rule and democratic legitimacy with a fairer arena for electoral contest and a redistributive agenda, civilian-led against military rule.
The upside is that there is a chance to finally move Thai politics beyond the Thaksin era. The downside is the need to reconcile between the young and the older. Leadership will be critical. If there is leadership from the older generation to accommodate younger voices and/or if there is leadership from the younger generation to accommodate older interests and roles, then Thailand can navigate a way forward. If not, we will probably see a different kind of conflict, no longer centring on Thaksin and his opponents, but between people who grew up during the Cold War and those who were reared in the 21st century.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. This article is adapted from his recent lecture at Harvard University Asia Centre's Thai Studies Program.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.