Thailand's Ticking Political Time Bomb

Thailand's politics are in turmoil, featuring mass demonstrations, a growing role for the military in Thai politics, and erosion of the country's fledgling democracy. If the United States aims to construct a foreign policy which can adapt to the coming Thai tempest, we need to understand the players and the turf.

The Conflict and Its Players

At a fundamental level, society is split over one man: telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin's popularity owes critically to the fact that after campaigning in 2001 with a bevy of populist promises, he delivered upon these once elected. As such, he earned a loyal mass following, becoming adored by most of Thailand's rural, often impoverished population -- who constitute the bulk of the electorate.  

In 2010, four years after being overthrown in a military coup, Thaksin continues to possess much political capital across the country. Efforts to apprehend him, cut off his sources of copious funding, and perhaps even eliminate him, have thus far failed. From an undisclosed location abroad, Thaksin has managed to build abundant and well-organized support among thousands of "Red Shirt" demonstrators as well as cultivate greater ties among active and retired police, soldiers, civilian bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople, and even persons of colossal clout.

The opponents of Thaksin galvanized initially against him in 2005 when they realized that his political machine might boost him to become the single most dominant person in the country -- perhaps preempting even the palace. There seemed to be plenty of evidence of this as, Thaksin sought to pack the courts with his cronies and run roughshod over the constitution. An ironic anti-Thaksin alliance of civil libertarians and royalists grew into a particularly potent "People's Alliance for Democracy" -- the Yellow Shirt movement.

The rise of anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirt" protestors and their Yellow Shirt allies in the armed forces, the voiding of the April 2006 Lower House election, the coup of September 2006, the constitution of 2007, the refusal of the military to safeguard two Thaksin-tilted governments in 2008, the armed forces' assistance in cobbling together the Democrat-led government later that year, and the current military stance in safeguarding the anti-Thaksin ruling coalition -- all have attempted to ensure that Thaksin and his minions are pushed out of the political picture for good.  

A bulwark of institutions is aligned against the former prime minister. First, the Privy Council and Palace have actively added their voice to the anti-Thaksin clamor. Secondly, the judiciary and independent agencies have played a major role in dissolving pro-Thaksin political parties, indicting and convicting (almost entirely) pro-Thaksin politicians, and legitimizing the use of force against pro-Thaksin demonstrators. Thirdly, the Queen's Guard faction, which currently dominates the military, has placed the armed forces on a solid anti-Thaksin footing. Fourthly, several political parties, led by the ruling Democrats, stand opposed to Thaksin and his proxies in parliament. Finally, a media blitz has exacerbated anti-Thaksin opinion among Thais. 

The goals of the anti-Thaksin movement remain firm: Keep the former prime minister and his surrogates from returning to govern the country or influence Thai politics. In their view, this will ensure that an elected authoritarian similar to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez does not have a chance to dominate the country.  At the same time, it will guarantee that no political party can or will challenge the supremacy of the monarch.

The objectives of pro-Thaksin elements are more diverse. On one hand, Thaksin himself and his loyalists feel cheated by his military ouster in 2006. Thus, they presume to hold the popular legitimacy to return again to office. At a lower level, "Red Shirt" demonstrators and their immediate leaders are pushing for drastic socioeconomic changes in terms of much more populist measures which will aid the mostly rural majority of people in the country. Finally, many police and military officers resent what they see as politically biased promotions that have resulted in suspected loyalists in the security forces being sidelined to inactive positions. Such disenchantment has led to disunity in Thailand's security forces, which at least initially hampered their ability or willingness to disperse the recent "Red Shirt" demonstrations.

Both sides to Thailand's conflict harbor goals which might be deemed worthy. Clearly, for the sake of democracy, anti-Thaksin forces might be right to fear the ascension of a Thaksin tyranny -- should he return to power. At the same time, though some Red Shirt leaders (including Thaksin) may be mere demagogues, their ideological cause remains worthy in terms of promoting much-needed socioeconomic improvements for the masses.

The means with which the contending sides have sought to advance their agenda have ranged from elections to violent mobs seeking to pressure governments out of office to military coups and repression. Yet Thaksin's supporters have proven time and again that they are able to trump their opponents at the ballot box, forcing the latter to resort to nondemocratic, seemingly biased judicial strategies, and sometimes brutal methods, to achieve their ends. 

The result has been that though former Prime Minister Thaksin once might have abused Thai democracy to stay in office, at this point, his opponents are doing the same to keep him from returning to power. As such, currently, the pendulum has swung in favor of Thaksin with regard to who is probably on the right side of democratic and popular legitimacy. Still, the violent means used by some "Red Shirts" did little to endear their cause to the people of Bangkok, where the Reds' March-May 2010 demonstrations produced severe disruptions to the urban economy -- not to mention civilian casualties which could not be entirely blamed on the armed forces.

The military's May 19 repression of the Red Shirts and detention of Red Shirts' leaders, as well as the anti-Thaksin Democrat-led government's vaguely sketched "Roadmap to Peace," mean that Thailand today has achieved only a lull in the storm in terms of the country's intensifying political polarization.

The country's conflict involves five important players. First, there is Thaksin himself. Decisions he makes may either further inflame or contribute to resolving the Thai imbroglio. Second, there is the palace, at the apex of power in Thailand -- with a monarch highly revered by most Thais. Though this sovereign has succeeded in resolving political calamity in the past, today he is an ailing octogenarian. Third, there is the palace's top advisor, Prem Tinsulanond, a former top general and head of the King's Privy Council. Prem is thoroughly distrusted by Thaksin's forces. Fourth, we have soon-to-retire Army Commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda, who controls the state's monopoly of force. Fifth, there is current anti-Thaksin Prime Minister Abhisit Vechachiwa, though his time in office may be fleeting. Other important actors include the heads of the anti-Thaksin Yellow and pro-Thaksin Red Shirt demonstrators, though leadership is fractured in each.

Thailand's Coming Critical Juncture

In the next few years, Thailand faces a hotly contested general election, the impending twilight of the reign of its longest-reigning sovereign, and the eventual passing of Privy Council head Prem, who is aged 90. The point here is that the country is soon to pass through a political vacuum. Meanwhile, intensified political splits look set to continue, a phenomenon which is reverberating even through the security sector. At the same time, Thaksin carries on in his struggle to return to power. As disorder increasingly fragments Thai society, soldiers will probably exert more control over the state. The result will be enhanced military influence -- all of which will threaten civilian control, democratization, and any remaining stability. Should Thaksin, the sovereign, or Prem disappear from the scene, the political environment will likely become even more desperate and violent, with the armed forces taking an even more active role in politics. The question even arises whether military authoritarianism is just around the corner.

U.S. Policy toward Thailand

Thailand's crisis -- with no easy exit strategy close at hand --  has major implications for the international community and U.S. foreign policy. Japan, Singapore, the European Union, the United States, and China are major trading partners of Thailand and possess sizeable foreign investments. The U.S. and Thailand especially have had long and close ties with regard to trade, investment, and security. These three areas can be seen today in terms of continuing negotiations for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, joint efforts in counter-terror, and the Cobra Gold annual military exercises. 

If Thailand continues down the path of increased political polarization, chaos, and intensified military influence, greater progress in these areas and general international concerns in Thailand may be seriously impaired. This could take the form of diminished stability for international investments in Thailand, as well as wavering steadiness for what has been an active security partner in the war on terror. Thaksin's apparent budding amity with Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia amidst an unresolved border spat between Thailand and Cambodia has exacerbated frontier friction between the two states. Indeed, Hun Sen has let it be known that he would prefer the ouster of the ruling Abhisit Vechachiwa government (though this could merely be political posturing). As such, Thailand's domestic polarization and Thai-Cambodian political differences have the potential to converge into a wider conflict. 

Ultimately, a politically unstable Thailand, leading to intensified economic instability, would hamper Southeast Asian regional security, as well as any other multilateral or bilateral interactions with Bangkok. As one of Washington's oldest allies in Asia, Thailand's internal security is of paramount importance to the United States. Though some argue that an unstable Thailand benefits China, given that Thailand has been a staunch U.S. partner, in actuality, Beijing too would suffer from Thai turmoil, as this would impede current Chinese-Thai economic efforts. 

In sum, the United States has four choices with regard to the increasingly volatile situation. 

One: Do nothing.

This option aims to keep a low profile during the crisis while seeking to maximize interests by working with whichever party is in charge of the levers of power. Such a policy could eventually lead to those opposed to the government branding the United States as a supporter of the government in office. At the same time, U.S. interests might still be harmed during the violence, and Washington would have little leverage over reducing attacks waged by those against it. Finally, the U.S. would lose what little leverage it holds in reducing human rights violations during this period.

Two: Be vocal.

This scenario entails Washington's making of occasional public or private pronouncements which, neutral in substance, call for peace and order across the country. Yet unless words are followed with something more tangible (a proactive stance), this option will, like Option One, do little to protect or further U.S. interests in Thailand.

Three: Support one side or the other.

The bout between Thaksin and his opponents could lead to foreign powers lining up on one side or the other. Aside from Cambodia, certain groups in Russia have also demonstrated support for Thaksin (as long as he can repay a loan). Indeed, Thaksin recently borrowed U.S. $100 million from a major Russian bank to finance his political return. The danger with this option is that the U.S. could get pulled into the crisis as the ally of either the forces opposing or supportive of Thaksin. If violence erupts into civil war, it could evolve into a proxy conflict among powerful countries in the international community. Political instability could then spread beyond Thailand or become more lasting. 

Four: Actively push for peace and order through compromise. 

This option offers the most constructive manner by which the international community can influence current political events in Thailand. It involves a pro-active push for negotiations between Thaksin and the chair of the Privy Council. Such talks to end the seemingly endless political impasse could result in a grand coalition government being formed between the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party, the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party, and other minor parties with the prime minister being someone acceptable to all sides (perhaps current Senate President Prasopsuk Boondej), paving the way for a constitutional convention and new elections. 

On April 1, 2010, the United States appeared to begin implementing a reconciliation policy when the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a five-year, $30-million program for Thailand to promote conflict resolution and reconciliation (in the South as well). Aiming to work with civic groups and government agencies, the program will find it difficult to chart a course which avoids perceptions of bias and charges of political manipulation. Yet it offers a positive start. In May, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell appeared to strike a balance, meeting with pro-Thaksin elements while also applauding the generalized roadmap to peace of the Abhisit government. Regardless, the U.S. needs to increasingly bolster the perception among Thais that it is a neutral player in Thailand's conflict. At the same time, Washington should privately pressure both sides to resolve the crisis without delay, given that any continuing Thai calamity will only harm U.S. interests.


With potential civil war hanging in the air and a royal succession drawing near, Thai politics remain extremely fluid, the only surety being increased national volatility and a heightened political role for Thailand's military. Resolving the current conflict is not impossible, but any reconciliation must involve a willingness to patch up differences between the Privy Council and Thaksin, which may take some years to achieve. The obstacle to such compromise is a further heightening of polarization and violence. What is yet to be seen is whether Thailand's leaders can muster the political will to put national reconciliation above partisan bickering. For the future, the United States will have to walk a tightrope if it is to remain above the Thai domestic fray, avoid accusations of bias, and still succeed in contributing to the resolution of Thailand's turmoil.

Dr. Paul Chambers is an American working as Senior Research Fellow at the Political Science Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany.