Gridlock in Bangkok

Thailand’s political situation is in chaos. Why isn’t America, or the West, doing anything?

Why does Thailand always receive a "get out of jail free" card from the rest of the world, let alone from many of its own people? Maybe it's in Thai genes. Foreigners find them an immensely ingratiating people.

You would think that with over three hundred thousand of their citizens stranded in Bangkok for up to a week and not an insignificant chunk of world commerce suspended, foreign countries and a sizeable portion of Bangkok would have beaten a real path to the Thai government and police and the other less visible movers and shakers of Thailand to do something about it. Apparently to the outside world, it was mostly a fascinating distraction from deepening global economic woes.

Where were the democracy advocates-both inside and outside Thailand? They have watched, mostly quietly, for the past few years while the Thai judiciary found ways to throw out parliamentary elections, get rid of governments and oust prime ministers, because they were in effect under the control of former-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had increasingly come to dominate the country. One of Thaksin's prime ministers was sent packing because he took some money for hosting a cooking show on television. Similarly, how come the press and other advocates kept mostly quiet about the violence of a rabid opposition-which went to extreme lengths to prevent the government from functioning-on a political platform of removing the franchise from many poor people? Governments and political parties often buy votes. Thaksin, power hungry and charged with corruption, was hardly an exemplary character. But that has not cost him or his parties the popular vote.

The sad fact is that Thailand still does not have a serious political class and no political system has emerged that works on a sustained basis. While Thailand was surrounded by war and instability, governments were the plaything of the military. Coups diminished over time as prosperity took over and the fear of war totally receded. Nevertheless, as recently as two years ago, there was another military coup. Ending another government this time by the courts, is not the end of the story. Despite the ban on a number of parliamentarians, the Thaksin dominated parties still have enough votes to form a government. Whether they are allowed to do so is the next act in this unending drama.

Worse than before, the public has become much more politically polarized, broken down in great part between rich and poor. Thaksin was genius enough to appeal to Thailand's mostly forgotten farmers and establish a populist government that gave him sizeable electoral victories. He brought farmers some real benefits and they gave him unstinting support. But he made one crucial error. He alienated Bangkok's all-important royalist and business elites, who turned against him. The result is that Thailand is divided in a way it has never been, with some even questioning the monarchy. Remarkably, despite periodic political travail over the years, Thailand has grown impressively. An old Thai friend always told me that Thailand works best at night because that is when the government sleeps. He must be supremely happy when the government hardly functions at all.

The resiliency of Thailand in spite of its political failings does not explain why everyone else is so quiet. Partly it is because foreign governments believe it is all passing and life will soon return to normal. After all, that's always what seems to happen. Governments are also afraid to talk candidly when the palace is involved. Despite their concern for Thai stability, foreign governments count for less on Bangkok's political scene than they once did. More important, it is not at all clear to the Thai people how sustained political life will return to "normal" given the deep cleavages in the country and the decline of the truly revered and powerful king, who could usually calm things down when violence threatened or occurred. There was deeper concern in Thailand last night when illness prevented the king from giving his annual birthday address. Even worse, the economy is feeling the impact of worldwide recession and some predict economic growth will fall to zero. Moreover the Muslim insurgency in the south of the country has grown in the last few years, and neither the government nor military have found an approach able to control it.

Democracy has eroded and one can no longer be sure what is coming politically-perhaps even another coup by the military, which basically supported the anti-government protestors. Thailand may not have the same strategic value it did during the cold war, but it is one of the major states of Southeast Asia with a large economy. Advocates in and outside of Thailand, including concerned democratic governments, have failed to do what they are supposed to, however confusing the situation may seem. Their voices must again be loud, clear, candid and insistent.


Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was American ambassador to Thailand from 1978-81.