Climate of Fear
The unspoken backdrop to all this is the coming royal succession. The current king, who is revered by many as semi-divine, but is 86 years old and ailing.
King Bhumibol has reigned since 1946, making him the world’s longest-serving head of state. His designated heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, faces an uphill task to accrue the “moral authority and sacred power enjoyed by his father,” said Pavin.
Most Thais have known nothing other than Bhumibol’s rule, and as the inevitable approaches, parts of society — especially those that have benefited from close links to the palace — are gripped by acute end-of-reign anxiety.
This has combined with long-standing fear and prejudice against the “ignorant, uneducated” rural masses to produce the fiery, and often deeply offensive, anti-government rhetoric seen on the protest stages.
“Faced with the trauma of looming succession, many elite and middle-class Thais have taken refuge in superstition and a cult of idealized royalty,” said Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a British journalist who is currently writing a book on the subject. “They have become dangerously fanatical. Fear has curdled into craziness and hate.”
Marshall lives abroad to avoid charges under Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, which prohibits criticism of royal family members and has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the so-called Land of Smiles.
Any criticism of the monarchy is taboo, and journalists based in Thailand — including this one — must practice self-censorship to avoid the very real threat of imprisonment.
“The lèse-majesté law prevents Thai journalists from critically taking into account the prominent role of the monarchy institution in Thai society. Our analyses are thus constrained and diminished,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the few Thai journalists who have dared to speak out on the issue.
Both the Democrats and the ruling Pheu Thai party have used the law as a tool to smear opponents, and tens of thousands of websites deemed critical of the monarchy have been blocked. Last month, a Thai man was jailed on several counts including an unprecedented one of “attempting to commit the crime of lèse-majesté” after content deemed insulting to the royal family was found on his computer.
It is against this background of fear and loathing that the current turmoil on the streets of Bangkok must be seen, as rival factions jockey for power.
The ongoing protests in Bangkok highlight the longstanding mistrust between the wealthy capital and the regions — especially the populous northeast, which is known as Isaan and is home to 20 million people. Most of these are ethnic Lao and speak a Lao dialect, though their ties to neighboring Laos have diminished over time.
Isaan provides many of the capital’s construction workers, taxi drivers, waitresses and other service sector staff, but they are viewed by many Bangkok residents as second-class citizens, poorer and less educated.
Many of the protesters openly dismiss them with contempt. “These people are very low in mentality. They don’t understand things,” a 63-year-old businessman said at a rally near Government House. He favored the suspension of elections “until the people reach my standard.”
These condescending attitudes are reflected in the mass media, where, “Isaan people are relegated to the sphere of comedy, slapstick, and farce, the traditional sphere of servants,” noted Cornell University’s Professor Benedict Anderson.
Yet these outdated, offensive views are themselves the product of ignorance among a smug and insular Bangkok middle class that is fearful for its future.
Isaan has seen impressive economic growth, and educational levels have shot up in recent years. Several studies have refuted the allegations of vote-buying that are commonly used to justify claims the government is illegitimate.
“The upcountry electorate is richer, better educated, and more experienced at elections than ever before,” said Chris Baker, a British analyst, who — with his wife — has written a biography of Thaksin.
“In truth, the problem is not that upcountry voters don’t know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying,” he said. “The problem is that they have learned to use the vote only too well. Over five national polls, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.”
The coming days and weeks are crucial to determining the future of Thailand. Suthep has vowed to “seize Bangkok,” urging his supporters to shut down the city on Jan. 13.
“Wait for our signal and bring your clothes and food with you because we’ll fight for months until we achieve victory,” he told protesters. “As for my brothers and sisters in Bangkok, we will not leave an inch of this capital city for the people of the Thaksin regime to stay in and take advantage of the people.”
He has told television stations to broadcast live announcements by the protest leaders, and threatened to cut electricity and water to government offices and the homes of ministers.
The protest leaders appear to welcome the prospect of more violence and instability, believing this would provide a pretext for the military to step in and stage a coup.
On Dec. 27, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha refused to rule out that possibility, to the dismay of the government’s supporters. Yingluck has spent the past couple of years assiduously courting the army that overthrew her brother, but appears to have lost its confidence.
The military is a key power broker in a country that has seen 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. But it is also divided, with many “watermelon” troops — green on the outside, red on the inside — in the ranks. Analysts say some senior commanders may also side with the government in the event of an attempted coup.
Other possibilities are that the country’s election commissioners — in charge of organizing the Feb. 2 polls — will step down, or that the courts will bring down the government in what would amount to a judicial coup. Thailand’s anti-corruption agency will soon decide whether to file charges against Pheu Thai MPs who proposed amendments to the military-approved 2007 constitution. And with protesters still blocking candidate registration in some southern provinces, it is uncertain whether a government could be formed even if the election takes places.
The government and its supporters have so far acted with commendable restraint, even allowing the protesters to occupy key buildings in a bid to avoid confrontation.
“We are in control,” government national security advisor Sean Boonpracong said on Dec. 29. “The government is functioning until there is a new government, and we are in charge of maintaining security.”
But anger is growing daily in red-shirt communities. They remember well the events of May 2010, when then-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep allegedly authorized troops to use live fire to clear red-shirt protesters occupying central Bangkok. More than 80 civilians died and around 2,000 were injured in the violence that followed. Many angrily compare the actions of the army then with its conciliatory approach to the current crop of middle-class protesters.
“They are very angry,” said Jaran Ditapichai, a red shirt leader and parliamentary candidate for the Pheu Thai party. He noted that many are talking openly about the possibility of the northern and northeastern provinces seceding from Bangkok — a move he believes would be impossible.
Jaran stressed that he was hoping for a peaceful solution, and said red shirts in the provinces are rallying with the slogan “yes to the general election, no to civil war.” But in the event of a military coup, he said, the red shirts would “stand up and fight” to defend the government. Other red shirt leaders have vowed to mobilize supporters to “keep Bangkok open” during Suthep’s promised siege.
Whatever happens next, Thailand’s political turmoil looks set to continue for some time, and the elites that have wielded power for so long are unlikely to give it up without a fight.
“What we are witnessing is a desperate last-ditch battle by Thailand’s old feudal elite to hang on to their ancient power and privilege and prevent the county moving forward into the 21st century,” said MacGregor Marshall. “It is an impossible, quixotic struggle, and they are losing — hence their desperation, which makes them dangerous. The country is maturing, and the struggles we are seeing are the growing pains of an emerging democracy.”
Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Bangkok. He has written for publications including the Times of London, The Independent, South China Morning Post and the Far East Economic Review. This article was first published at wagingnonviolence.org. It has been reprinted with permission.