After an all too brief lull thanks to the birthday of the king, Thailand has returned to mass demonstrations and political paralysis. It seems likely that Bangkok’s streets will remain a populist battlefield until the next general elections on February 2.
The change in Thailand’s political culture over the past decade or so has been striking. From a country which embodied the Southeast Asian belief in political consensus and quiet elite deliberation it now has a culture of violence and confrontation not dissimilar to what is normally seen in Bangladesh. But while Dhaka’s streets are slowly becoming less strewn with stones, Bangkok’s have got worse.
Thailand’s politics reflects what its leadership has long pretended did not exist: severe economic and cultural differences between its western half and a dominant coastal elite. There is an irony that this division should have manifested itself in the political rise of a Thai-Chinese, the now exiled ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The refusal of the Thai ancient regime to accept that there is an alternative centre of political power and that democracy is the best means to manage this new state of affairs undergirds much of what ails Thailand today. Shinawatra has not helped matters with his poorly conceived attempts to exploit his popularity and end his exile. The attempt of his sister and proxy prime minister, Yingluck, to pass an amnesty Bill as a blatant favour for her brother being just the latest such move.
In the absence of a democratic consensus in Thailand on how the country’s polity should function, the only unifying symbol is the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Unfortunately, the next generation in the royal family does not inspire confidence. The political instability is also affecting the country’s once booming economy. Thailand needs to evolve a democratic culture. It is not an instinctively confrontational or severely fractured society. However, the lack of any clear political leader with a larger vision and political skills to match does not bode well.