Picture, if you will, throngs of anti-government protesters blockading roads, storming parliaments, blocking airports and setting fire to shopping malls. These are some of the images that have come out of Bangkok in the past few years. A mere six months ago, the headlines screamed that the Thai army had forcibly removed the “Red Shirts,” the latest protest group, from an intersection they had occupied for weeks. And since then, it’s been pretty quiet…mostly.
The gathering of an estimated 10,000 Red Shirt protesters on Friday in the Thai capital of Bangkok should serve as a stark reminder that this is not a politically stable country.
The problems in today’s Thailand are, at their heart, a great economic class division stemming from the election of a highly controversial Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, back in 2001. Though himself the richest man in Thailand, his populist policies catered to the poor who felt that no politician had paid any attention to them while infuriating the rich, who insisted that his policies were incredibly corrupt.
In September 2006 while I was studying in Thailand, months of tensions resulted in the army staging a peaceful coup d’etat while Mr. Thaksin was away at the UN. After a year of military leaders governing in a junta, power was returned to a civilian government through fresh elections in late 2007.
Soldiers in Bangkok after the coup d’etat in September, 2006. Note the yellow ribbons for the King
Low and behold, allies of Thaksin won big, much to the aggravation of the rich (more commonly known as the PAD or People’s Alliance for Democracy, recognized for their yellow shirts, a color associated with the King), who began mass protests in the Thai capital.
Two Thaksin-aligned Prime Ministers served in a tense, year long period marred by many PAD protests throughout the capital, including the highly publicized seizure and blockade of Bangkok’s two airports for roughly a week in late November 2008. The political party of Thaksin’s allies was dissolved through a court decision, though new parliamentary elections were not held. As such, the PAD-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva became the Prime Minister, a position he still holds today.
Cue fresh protests by Thailand’s poor, officially called the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD, but more commonly known as the Red Shirts. Almost immediately after Abhisit’s rise to power in December 2008, the Red Shirts took the streets demanding fresh elections, an idea the PAD is no fan of as they would surely lose.
Given all this, Bangkok has been relatively quiet since a series of bloody events marked the end of the Red Shirts encampment earlier this year. But when you consider that the Red Shirts did not get their way, you see that this problem is far from over.
Undoubtedly, the Red Shirts’-backed political party will win big in the next parliamentary election and this cycle will continue, as every time a politician gives voice to the poor (who are the majority of Thais), the rich scream corruption. This cycle of protests to bring down governments has no foreseeable end.
What makes matters even more interesting is that the Red Shirts have taken it upon themselves to stun Thai society by publicly suggesting that there is no longer a need for a Royal family, a stunning rebuke of of the lèse majesté that Thailand is known for, making it a crime to say anything critical of the Royal Family (case in point, the movie “The King and I” is banned in Thailand).
Thailand’s much beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is ailing and his designated heir is much despised amongst the Thai people. It will be truly fascinating to see what will happen once the King, who has spent much of the last year hospitalized, passes. A German travel guide author I chatted with in Laos suggested that it could spark a civil war, which would have serious implications throughout Southeast Asia.
Is Thailand safe in the immediacy? Yes. Any times there are protests in Bangkok, the targets tend to be governmental or commercial areas, not necessarily areas that foreigners gather in. That said, if you encounter any protests, as always, it is best to walk the other way!
Stay informed about the political situation. Local media provides one of the best insights into the situation on the ground in Thailand. Both The Bangkok Post and The Nation are Bangkok-based English newspapers that can be a great resource from the view of expats living in Thailand, rather than the hyperactive views of backpackers passing through you might see elsewhere.
What will come of Thailand’s political situation? Nobody knows the answer to this one. The world waits to see what the next move will be and I would be willing to bet that it won’t come quietly!