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Thailand’s protests are a symptom of its identity crisis

A nation in flux. Vincent Thian/AP

The protests currently rocking Thailand are some of the largest since the country’s political crisis began to unfold in September 2006 when the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was first ousted. Living in exile since August 2008, he has remained influential in Thai politics through his sister and incumbent party leader Yingluck Shinawatra.

The language of those opposing the exiled leader has changed over the years. From a focus on the former leader’s human rights abuses and alleged corruption, their rhetoric has shifted to one increasingly critical of Thaksin’s rural supporters – the majority of the Thai population. This shift reflects tensions in Thai identity.

There is now a surge of opinion in support of temporarily freezing democratic government and implementing an unelected “People’s Council” in order to protect the country from its own people. This view is held by a minority of the population, but is supported and proliferated by a number of key players in the Thai political system.

Most obvious among them is the leadership of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the political force behind the mobilisation of the “Yellow Shirts” in 2006 and 2008. More recently this view has also been voiced by key members of the main opposition party, the Democrats. Central to their undemocratic lobbying is a skewed perception of Thai history and identity.

The genesis of Thai nationalism

Thai nationalism has always been built on the premise of aspiration. Governed for centuries by elites connected to the Siamese monarchy, the late 19th century saw this small group become attached to a lavish consumer lifestyle funded largely through a profitable relationship with the European colonial powers. With the country’s internal and international trade dominated by Chinese migrant communities, Thai people of commoner status struggled to improve their social standing.

After a revolution that deposed absolute monarchy in 1932, attempts were made to expand the wage earning potential of ordinary Thais. Most were unsuccessful, but the Thai state continued to encourage the population to improve their circumstances and sought to bring all Thais into its vision of a modern nationalist economy.

It was an egalitarian approach to nation building that ultimately backfired. Drenched increasingly in the racist and chauvinistic language of the 1930s, Thailand’s nationalist leaders became re-cast during the Cold War as a product of imported ideas from the West (most notably fascism) and were increasingly viewed as incapable of representing the Thai people. Economic development remained elusive and attempts to nationalise those parts of the economy in foreign hands were increasingly viewed as ineffective. With many becoming focused on how to develop relations with a new international patron, the United States, urban Thais of commoner status began to re-think their nation.

Glorification of the rural heartland

What replaced it was a product of Cold War ideology and US economic policy. Keen that Thailand should remain a largely agricultural economy, US policy makers encouraged Thais not to transform society through revolution, but allow it to evolve slowly through integration with the American-centred global economy.

From the late 1950s, economic development in Thailand was led by enormous amounts of US and Japanese investment into the country. But it was coupled with the emergence of a cultural industry, funded largely by tourism and academia, which depicted Thailand’s rural heartland as a precious commodity that must be protected.

Rural Thailand – pawn of the elites. Brian9000

During the 1960s, the Thai middle class expanded rapidly as thousands of Thais finally managed to realise their dreams of becoming participants in the world economy. University places increased substantially, and opportunities in the expanding economy multiplied. But rather than see these changes as something for all, Thai student groups tended to adopt the ideas of both capitalist and Maoist ideologues, with rural Thailand as the heart of the nation.

This spurred a benevolent attitude to rural communities that idealised their way of life to the point that many would take years out to work in the fields. Others set up working groups to teach villagers about democracy and many worked with rural communities to improve sanitation and farming technology (much of which was funded by US aid). While often well intentioned, this view of the nation assumed that the village was a stable place where existing ways of life should be preserved. The desire of villagers to be regarded as equal members of Thai society was ignored – as were their aspirations for betterment.

Opposing views

This illusion held until 1997, when the Asian financial crisis put an end to Thailand’s developmental journey. A new political class was brought in and it re-wrote the rulebook. Recognising that the Thai village was a transient place, deeply connected to the city and largely uninterested in protecting its own tradition, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra built its political base upon giving villagers what they wanted – access to the global market.

Thaksin Shinawatra sees a different Thailand to many. Helene C Stikkel

These were populist polices that conflicted with the existing system and were incomprehensible for many opposed to Thaksin. Moreover, the inclusion of electoral fraud into the critique of Thaksinism in the 2006 protests allowed for many protesters to maintain their idealised view of the countryside. As in the 1970s, the vast regions of north and north-eastern Thailand remained depicted as home to communities who needed to be taught about democracy but who also needed to recognise the value of their own way of life. They sought to maintain a two-tiered version of modernity. Why did rural populations need motorbikes when they had a buffalo?

But over the time, and after two election victories for pro-Thaksin parties, it has become clear that this view is no longer tenable. Now the majority of the Thai people are being portrayed by anti-government protesters as an impediment to Thailand’s economic development and arguments are being made to deny them the right to vote – all to remove Thaksin’s influence.

In truth however, Thailand’s economic development is dependent on continued evolution. Rather than being fixed under an imagined view of stability built around the image of village life, it needs to reconcile itself with a post-Cold War world, with the rise of China and with Southeast Asian economic integration. It needs to recognise that compared to its neighbours to the east and west it is no longer a developing nation, but a mature functioning economy that is in desperate need of new ideas and strategies.

To be clear, the current government is far from being free of elite self-interest or from the maintenance of unequal class relations. There is no clear way to define rights or develop the economy and ultimately the Thai people must recognise that development is an uneven process. They must also, however, understand that the reason why democracy works is because governments can and are shaped by those who vote.

In a country of massive wealth inequality it is inevitable that a true Thai democracy would seek to alleviate economic differences, widen the tax base and support the aspirations of the majority. The sooner the current protest movement seeks not only to oppose Thaksin, but learn to really listen to what the majority of the population wants, and then to accept it, the sooner Thailand can once again look to the future.

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