Thailand's Missing Democrats

Reds, Yellows, and the Silent Majority

Thai soldiers stand guard at the Army Club during a coup, May 22, 2014.
Thai soldiers stand guard at the Army Club during a coup, May 22, 2014. (Athit Perawongmetha / Courtesy Reuters)

Thailand is once again under military rule, following the coup on May 22. The army claims the move was necessary for restoring order after months of political protest, and that it will now be pushing through political reforms. The coup will be interpreted as a success for the antigovernment protesters who have long demanded that the old government step down and that reforms take place before a new election is held. 

The most recent round of political turbulence kicked off earlier this month when Thailand's constitutional court ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the grounds that, in 2011, she had illegally transferred a senior official from the National Security Council to an inactive post. Less than seven weeks earlier, the constitutional court ruled the last general election, which she had won, invalid because the biggest opposition party, the Democrat Party, had sat it out, and because voting was disrupted in several places by anti-Yingluck activists.

In the days following Yingluck’s removal from office, an umbrella organization of anti-Yingluck protesters called the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC), which overlaps with a broader movement called the Yellow Shirts, has continued to insist that the country is in need of reform -- namely a crackdown on corruption -- before a meaningful election can take place. Yingluck supporters, sometimes called Red Shirts, argue that what Thailand needs, above all, is increased respect for democratic institutions in general and for election results in particular.

Both sides claim that they want to strengthen democracy on behalf of the Thai people, but what do the Thai people want? As new survey data show, it isn’t necessarily what the activists have in mind. Perhaps surprisingly, given Thailand’s years of political turbulence, hard-core yellow and red activists make up a tiny portion of the country’s population, and their understandings of democracy are radically different from each other and from those of the Thai population writ large. In other words, the political unrest seems to be largely spurred by a power struggle between two elite groups rather than the Thai citizenry.

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