The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
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.
Within the span of a few decades, Thailand has experienced regime change, democratic reform, political unrest, a military coup, and a substantial reshuffling of the political boards. The story starts after the economic crisis of the 1990s, which the public partially blamed on Thailand’s social and political structures. As a response, the government decided to reform the constitution. In the first election under the new constitution, held in 2001, a new party, Thai Rak Thai, won a landslide victory and the businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister. Despite criticism of his corruption, personalist rule, populist policies, and a disregard for human rights, he easily won the next election, in 2005, as well.
Still, fears about his alleged misuse of power persisted. And, in 2006, after the sale of a telecom company owned by the Shinawatra family to a foreign investor, Bangkok erupted in widespread protests. Although the selling had been legal, it was widely considered unethical to sell out a Thai company to a foreigner. In addition, people were upset that the capital gains that the already wealthy Shinawatra family made from the sale were exempt from tax. In response, major public figures, including the media mogul and talk show host Sondhi Limthongkul, founded the anti-Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and organized public protests with the aim of toppling the prime minister. Shinawatra dissolved the parliament and called a snap election that he hoped would legitimize his power. Instead, all the major opposition parties boycotted the vote.
The military, which for 15 years had been increasingly divorced from politics, stepped in. The generals maintained that the military should not be involved in politics and that they would turn power over to the people as soon as possible. They banned Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and over 100 of its leading members from politics and then drafted a new constitution, which was passed in a referendum about a year after the coup. A few days after the new constitution was passed, the military-installed government announced the date for new elections.
Thailand’s politicians got busy realigning and regrouping. Most of the Thai Rak Thai politicians who were not banned from politics decided to stand for elections as part of a newly created party, the People’s Power Party. That group won the ensuing election with a comfortable margin. Protests followed. In 2008, the courts stepped in and removed the elected prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, from power on the charge of having participated in televised cooking shows, which allegedly violated rules about conflict of interest. But the protests only intensified, and in November of 2008, yellow-clad anti-Thaksin demonstrators associated with the PAD occupied government buildings in Bangkok. When police tried to disperse the gathering, violence erupted and hundreds were injured. The PAD went on to occupy the capital’s major international airports, bringing them to a standstill for several days.
This time, the constitutional court stepped in, banning the governing party outright. After some politicians defected to the opposition party, the opposition was able to form a government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva without ever having actually won an election. Meanwhile, new parties in support of Thaksin kept popping up. In the spring of 2009, supporters dressed in red managed to suspend an international ASEAN summit before the military dispersed them. In 2010, red-shirted demonstrators occupied the streets of the commercial center of Bangkok. A military intervention ended the siege. All told, the episode killed 91, injured 1,300, and left $1.25 billion in property damage.
With elections in 2011, a new party, Puea Thai, headed by Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, came to power. Her first years in office were relatively calm. Against all odds, she convincingly distanced herself from Thaksin and was able to work with both the palace and the army. In 2013, however, her carefully built credibility crumbled when she pushed for a controversial amnesty bill for politically related offenses. Among other things, it would have paved the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand.
Not surprisingly, anti-government protests struck in late 2013. Suthep Thaugsuban, general secretary of the main opposition party and former deputy prime minister, resigned his parliamentary seat and assumed the leadership of a new anti-Thaksin movement: the PDRC, which included the PAD and the Yellow Shirts, among others. The government called a snap election for February 2, 2014 to ease the conflict, but the opposition boycotted it as its supporters took to the streets. The Yingluck government consistently refused to use force against the protesters and showed remarkable restraint throughout the conflict.
In any event, the election never took place in many places in Bangkok and the South -- candidates had been prevented from registering, ballot boxes and ballot papers had been stopped on their way to the polling stations, there was a shortage of election officials, and PDRC demonstrators actively prevented voters from entering polling stations. A little over a month after the election, in the face of so many irregularities, the constitutional court ruled the election invalid.
And that brings us to this month, during which the situation has rapidly deteriorated. The constitutional court issued its ruling removing Yingluck from office, but the PDRC vowed to continue their protests until the entire caretaker government fell. Protests turned more violent. The army first declared martial law without informing the government in a “half-coup,” and then took full power on May 22.
Observers, including the Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak and the ASEAN expert Kitti Prasertsuk, describe the conflict between red and yellow in Thailand as one of the country’s deepest societal divisions. The Yellow Shirt movement is often understood as being primarily driven by the establishment -- well-off urban people with royalist sentiments. In contrast, the Red Shirt movement is seen as a political awakening of rural Thais who are fed up with inequality. A recent survey makes it possible to compare a special sample of yellow activists with a special sample of red activists; it shows that it is, indeed, evident that socioeconomic divisions run deep. Our survey data confirm that yellow activists tend to have higher incomes than red activists. Our data also show that yellow activists tend to have more typically elitist attitudes than red activists: 47 percent of yellows agree that there should be a minimum educational requirement for the right to vote, whereas 27 percent of red activists agree. In Thai politics, such limits on the right to vote are justified as ways to reduce the role of vote-buying and populism. But it is unclear whether such measures would help curb corruption. For instance, despite the fact that candidates for parliament have been constitutionally required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in order to be eligible to run for office since 1997, political corruption is a continual problem in Thailand. Further, limitations on these rights are difficult to reconcile with democratic principles.
Both groups of activists also view the role of the military very differently. Among the activists surveyed, yellows are much more likely than the reds (60 percent compared with 14 percent) to agree with the statement that “the military can take over to govern the country if the government is not capable.” Evidently, the Red Shirts believe that the military takeovers have never served their purposes. Yellows are less likely, though, to trust the police. Among the yellow activists, only 21 percent somewhat trust or fully trust the police, whereas among red activists 47 percent somewhat trust or fully trust the police. The reason for this difference is simple. It was the police who dispersed the Yellow Shirt protests in 2008, whereas the army tackled the Red Shirt protests in 2010. In fact, views on the legitimate use of violence overall are highly contingent on political color, rather than on principle. Among the activists, Red Shirts are much more likely than Yellow Shirts to express the view that the use of violence to stop the Yellow Shirt demonstration in October 2008 was necessary. Correspondingly, Yellow Shirt activists are much more likely than the Red Shirt activists to believe that the use of violence in 2010 was inevitable.
The military is not the only institution that gets involved in Thai politics. The latest court decision to remove Yingluck from power was not unprecedented but, rather, one example in a string of court removals of sitting officials, including three prime ministers. The fact that court decisions have mainly ousted politicians from one side -- the Red Shirt side -- has resulted in accusations that courts are politically biased. Accordingly, in our survey, yellow activists trusted the courts much more than red activists: 75 percent of the yellows and 30 percent of the reds somewhat trust or fully trust the courts.
There is less difference when it comes to other rule-of-law matters. There were no significant differences between yellow and red activists for two out of three statements we posed (“Corruption is needed to develop the country” and “Corruption is acceptable”). Our respondents overwhelmingly disagreed with both. There was a difference, though, when it came to a third statement, “It is OK that politicians are corrupted if I can get a share of it.” Red activists were more likely than yellow activists to agree (although 86 percent of the red activists still disagreed). In other words, although a small fraction of the Red Shirt activists take a more lenient and self-serving view on corruption, they are still overwhelmingly against it.
Despite their high visibility on the streets of Thailand, both the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts constitute small minorities of the Thai population. In the random sample of our survey, most people -- 85 percent -- claim that they do not have political views that can be related to the red-yellow conflict. Only nine percent claim to have a red inclination and a little more than six percent claim a yellow inclination. Admittedly, political views are somewhat sensitive in Thailand, which means that there is likely some underreporting of political preference. It is clear, though, that those with strong color-oriented views constitute a small minority, and the activists within each color grouping an even smaller minority.
Those results are similar to the outcome of a survey conducted by the Asia foundation in 2010, which suggested that a solid majority of Thais are politically neutral in this sense, while two vocal minorities push for radical political change in different directions. Activists who have actually attended a Red Shirt or Yellow Shirt rally are few and far between, less than one percent of the Thai population. This does not necessarily indicate widespread political apathy: many more have attended political party rallies or claim to be interested in discussing politics. It does, however, indicate that the political conflict is, by and large, exacerbated by the activities of two vocal minority elites.
In addition, the preferences of Thailand’s silent minority do not easily align easily with those of any one group. For example, our survey data confirm that the general population has less elitist attitudes than the Yellow Shirt activists. Less than 23 percent of the large majority of the Thai population who do not identify with either the yellows or reds agree that there should be education requirements for voting, as compared to the 47 percent of the Yellow Shirt activists.
The population at large is, however, in agreement with the yellow activists in their support of military coups when the government is incapable of ruling. A full 67 percent of the Thai population who are neither reds nor yellows think that the military should be able to play this role. The police also enjoy considerable support among neutral Thais: 64 percent of that population somewhat trust or fully trust the police. A sizeable minority of the neutrals condone the use of violence against protestors as well: 27 percent when the protests in 2008 are concerned and 31 percent when the protests in 2010 are concerned. Most neutrals -- 83 percent, in fact -- somewhat trust or fully trust the courts, and 86 percent believe that corruption is never acceptable.
Considering the recent coup, there are, of course, some very worrying signs. Red shirt activists, with their low trust in the military, are unlikely to accept this latest blow to the electoral democracy. They have vowed to fight if political power is once again taken away from them without elections, and violence is thus a real risk. The willingness of large parts of the Thai population to support a military takeover is also not a good sign for the future of Thai democracy.
But there is also, even in the midst of yet another military coup, reason to hope. A solid majority of the population seems to not be swayed by the activists’ radicalism and considers itself to be neutral. Further, a large majority of the population does not want to restrict the popular vote, does not condone corruption or state-sanctioned violence against any of the political groups, and maintains trust in legal and law-enforcing institutions. There also seems to be strong popular support for democracy, which is cause for cautious optimism about the country’s political future once the military steps back. The main challenge for Thailand -- and it is a big one -- is to increase the political influence of the large neutral citizenry, rather than letting radical activists averse to any kind of compromise steer the political development to the point that the military steps in.