The Battle for Thailand

Can Democracy Survive?

Courtesy Reuters

Over the past three years, Thailand has lived through a military coup, six prime ministers, and widespread civil unrest. The ongoing crisis grabbed headlines last year when protesters occupied two international airports, and it culminated this April in violent clashes in Bangkok. Observers have wondered how what was once such a promising democracy could devolve so quickly.

Today, a semblance of normality has returned to Thailand. But the battle for the country is far from over, and its future remains uncertain. The fractures that led to the confrontation in the first place have yet to be mended. Thai society has become deeply polarized, with different elites jockeying for power and the urban population pitted against the rural population, the north and the northeast against Bangkok and the south, and the poor against the rich. With Thailand's economy now contracting, these divisions might become even more salient. To make matters worse, speculation abounds about the health of the country's 81-year-old monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has traditionally stood for stability and continuity.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, the future of Thai democracy does not look good. Thailand's democratic institutions remain weak and vulnerable to interference by unelected institutions, such as the military and the judiciary. Unless Thailand develops solid, independent state entities that can bridge the gap between various interest groups, the situation will only deteriorate.


It all began with the meteoric rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, an immensely wealthy telecommunications tycoon who became prime minister in 2001 after his party -- the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), or TRT -- won the general election by a landslide. (Thaksin's 2005 electoral victory would be even more spectacular.) He ran on a platform of reform, but once in power he flouted democratic rules.

In 2003, for example, Thaksin launched a bloody and controversial "war on drugs." The campaign was initially regarded as successful: the price of methamphetamines, Thailand's drug of choice, more than doubled within a few months. But soon it began to

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