The Weird and Unpredictable World of Thai Politics

If you’re planning on traveling to Bangkok, you may want to avoid packing that Cincinnati Reds jersey you just bought. No, it’s not a gang-warfare precaution; red shirts just happen to be the symbol of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra‘s supporters, who have taken to the streets for a round of aggressive protests that have roiled the country and made international headlines. On Sunday, a Thai beach resort was meant to host a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, set to focus on the economic crisis. But a crowd of “red shirts” broke into the conference’s convention center, and the meeting had to be canceled amid security concerns.

That Thai protests have once again boiled over is not exactly surprising. Since 2006, when Shinawatra was deposed in a military coup, Thailand — which has waffled between democracy and military rule since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 — has been in a state of near-constant political flux. Just last year, yellow shirts — the anti-Thaksin, street-level counterparts to the red shirts — shut down Bangkok’s international airport in an effort to unseat a prime minister they said was a puppet of the ex-leader. (Take a look at a timeline to get a better sense of the dizzying array of regime changes and impactful court rulings since 2005.)

Much of the current chaos can be traced back to the highly polarizing Shinawatra, who governed as Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006 — the first time a Thai politician made it all the way through an elected term of office. A hugely successful telecommunications mogul before he ventured into politics, Shinawatra expanded his popularity by appealing to Thailand’s large rural base in the country’s North, while shunning urban “elites” (Sarah Palin isn’t the only politician to harness that divide-and-conquer strategy). As this article spells out, the split between Thailand’s North and South dates back centuries, to when Chiang Mai, the Northern capital (and Shinawatra’s hometown), and Siam, which is now the Southern part of Thailand, were bitter enemies.

While in office, Shinawatra pushed through policies that consolidated his rural base, with universal healthcare being perhaps the most important. He also shepherded the country through a period of impressive growth on the heels of the Asian economic collapse in the late ’90s, although his 2003 crackdown on drugs resulted in hundreds of deaths that many called into question. But Shinawatra also faced charges of suppressing the media, tax evasion, and more, related to sales of his assets to investors. An opposition movement quickly gained steam, and while he was visiting the United Nations in New York, the military stepped in and took control of the government. Shinawatra fled to London, where he purchased the Manchester City soccer team. He briefly returned to Thailand, but fled after his wife was convicted of tax fraud. Later, he was also convicted in absentia of breaking a conflict-of-interest law. But he is unmistakably a guiding force behind the recent protests, giving speeches via satellite from an undisclosed location, thought to be Dubai.

Since Thaksin’s departure, Thai politics have been a roller-coaster ride, and many red shirts think that the country’s elite — which they say includes the military and the courts — has made sure that politicians who represent rural voters don’t stay on top for too long. Two pro-Shinawatra prime ministers have been elected in the last three years, and both have been forced to leave office under overwhelming pressure, first from protesters, and then the courts. One, Samak Sundaravej, was found to have breached the constitution by hosting a television cooking show while he was in office. The other, Somchai Wongsawat, was forced to leave office after his party, the once Shinawatra-led People’s Power Party, was outright banned. The one thing most Thais have in common, though, is a reverence for the country’s monarch, King Bhumibol, who has ruled since 1946. Now, even he is coming under pressure, both for his possible role in the original 2006 coup and for not doing more to curb the latest street protests.

In the most recent round of violence, two people were killed, and hundreds injured. Things have died down for the time being — the red shirts have dispersed, which means a temporary setback for Thaksin Shinawatra. But as long as the class conflict in Thailand simmers and the political status quo remains unstable, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds.

Image: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang