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DUNCAN MCCARGO is a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University. He is author, most recently, of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand.See more by this author
Thailand is known for its dynamic economy, vibrant tourist industry, smiling hospitality, and pragmatism. But that’s hard to tell these days. On a recent walk near Siam Square, Bangkok’s iconic shopping and entertainment district, I watched a young, well-heeled woman gleefully defacing what remained of the signage in front of Thailand’s national police headquarters. In the square itself, the faces of speakers preaching hatred for the government flickered on countless looming flat screens. Trash cans had been plastered with pictures of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. These were only the most visible signs of long-standing political tensions that bubbled over in November.
Before 2001, Thai prime ministers had come and gone with predictable frequency. They would be elected by voters in the provinces, but then readily ousted by the Bangkok elite -- the military, the bureaucracy, the network surrounding the monarchy, and key business interests. The system appealed to the Bangkok elite, and provincial voters routinely failed to come together to collectively support their own interests. But that all changed with the arrival on the political scene of Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon.
Thaksin hails from Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Thailand’s north. Before he made it big, he was a police officer. Earlier than any other Thai politician, he recognized the value of tailoring his message to voter demands. He was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast, home to the fastest-growing segment of the Thai population -- urbanized villagers.