Can Thailand Ever Escape Its Class Warfare Trap?

How It Works
Dec. 2 2013 3:24 PM

Bangkok Deja Vu

A street food vendor passes by barricades outside the Government house ahead of a demonstration in Bangkok on Dec. 1, 2013.

Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The escalating street protests in Bangkok have taken a violent turn with at least three people killed in shootings between rival camps. While they have managed to briefly seize several government buildings and television stations, ant-igovernment protests that began a week ago appear unlikely to accomplish their goal of forcing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power. They failed to breach her heavily fortified office yesterday. And likely more importantly, there don’t appear to be any signs that the country’s military or monarchy will support the protests.  

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

All the same, the regularity with which the capital is the scene of deadly street clashesmost notably in 2008 and 2010is obviously a problem. It’s hard for democratic institutions to develop when political disputes tend to end with a body count. It’s particularly dispiriting in this case given that, prior to the protests breaking out, the country’s democratic institutions seemed to be working the way they are supposed to.


The crisis began in response to an amnesty bill that could have led to the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, from exile.  The political turmoil of the last few years has tended to circle around Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is currently wanted on corruption charges in his home country. In very broad strokes, Thaksin remains popular among poorer rural voters, who saw him as a populist ally, and despised by the educated, urban middle class, who viewed him as corrupt and authoritarian. Massive 2010 protests by Thaksin’s supporters, known as red shirts, was met with a military crackdown that left 90 people dead. Thaksin opponents, known as yellow shirts, have also launched massive protests in the past.

Yingluck, elected in 2011 and Thailand’s first female prime minister, was seen by opponents as a proxy for her exiled big brother, and the amnesty bill seemed to fit that narrative. The thing is, after being passed by the lower house, the bill was defeated 1410 in the Senate last month and the government pledged to drop it.

Unfortunately, rather than continue to fight Yingluck’s agenda from the senate, leaders of the opposition Democrat Party resigned from their offices to lead anti-government protests seeing to overthrow her and replace the country’s current democratic system with a vaguely-defined “People’s Council.”

Several authors have noted that Thailand’s political predicament appears to contradict the longstanding idea in political science that as populations become wealthier and more educated, they will become more democratic. In Thailand, the wealthy, urban middle class are perhaps the least supportive of democracy. It’s not the only place where this seems to be the case.

Another obstacle facing democracy in Thailand is the country’s strict lese-majeste laws, which can be used as a cudgel to criminalize political dissent. In the current crisis, both sides have accused the other of disrespecting the monarchy ahead of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday on Dec. 5.

Thailand’s color-coordinated, class-based politics might also seem to be a product of a growing gulf between haves and have-nots. And indeed, inequality is a serious issue in the country, where the richest 20 percent of Thais possess about 70 percent of the wealth. On the other hand, as Newley Purnell wrote recently in the New Yorker, the country’s level of inequality actually appears to have been decreasing over the recent years of political upheaval.

One might hope that if current trends continue, and more Thais are able to take advantage of the country’s economic growth, a less destructive form of partisan politics might take shape. Unfortunately, the current turmoil isn’t exactly helping Thailand move toward that goal



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.