The Seismic Shifts Behind the Coup in Thailand

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Grant Evans is a senior research fellow in anthropology at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Vientiane, Laos. For many years he was a professor of anthropology at the University of Hong Kong.

Thailand has been in crisis since an armed forces coup overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, ultimately forcing him into exile. Although his opponents used fair means and foul to keep various incarnations of Thaksin’s party out of power, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s first female prime minister following a resounding electoral victory for Thaksin’s Pheu Thai (For Thai) party in 2011.

But Yingluck’s government started to unravel in 2013 when it attempted a mass amnesty for those charged with corruption or other crimes. It was clear the amnesty was designed to allow Thaksin to return from exile. Opposition to the government surged, further fuelled by the failure of a populist rice-subsidy scheme that not only provided opportunities for corruption but also proved so costly that the government couldn’t honour its payments. Yingluck faces corruption charges over the scheme.

On 7 May, the Constitutional Court removed Yingluck from office for her role in trying to install the brother of Thaksin’s former wife as police chief. She pleaded, disingenuously, that he was no longer family. The divorce was a political convenience, of course, and Yingluck’s manoeuvre shows just how ingrained oligarchic politics is in Thailand.

In the end, the evolving crisis led to another coup on 22 May. Intriguingly, it has met with much less opposition than anyone expected.

I have been watching events unfold from neighbouring Laos, a perfect observation point. Thailand’s northeast region, just across the border, accounts for 31 per cent of the total population. Commonly called Isan (and its people, Khon Isan), the region is mostly ethnic Lao, and has been a major base of support for Thaksin. According to anthropologist Charles Keyes, the region’s ethno-regional identity and solidarity has made the local people into a formidable political force. But, as Keyes also shows, Isan has been transformed out of sight since he first visited fifty years ago.To understand the crisis in Thai politics, it’s important to examine the momentous changes Thai society has undergone in recent decades. If certain key institutions, such as the monarchy, have not yet been transformed, then they are about to be. Old relationships have been destabilised; new ones are not yet in place. It is this setting – the perfect opening for a populist demagogue like Thaksin – that explains much more about contemporary Thailand than the grossly simplified image of a struggle between the “rural poor” and the urban middle class and elites.

When Keyes and his wife Jane went to central Isan in 1963–64 it was still the poorest region in Thailand. Self-sufficient peasants battled with irregular rainfall and poor soils to make ends meet. The local geography conspired against commercial agriculture, and so men had begun heading to Bangkok for work in construction or other menial jobs, especially during the dry season. When Thailand became a playground for US troops on leave from the war in Vietnam, women headed to the urban bars and brothels for work. American aid drove roads through the region and sped up the circulation of people between city and countryside. Drawn out of their rural isolation, the migrants came into contact with others like themselves from across Isan, fomenting an ethno-regional sentiment. Together, they became aware of the wealth differences between Isan and Bangkok.

For residents of Bangkok, many of whom were of Sino-Thai descent, these dark, short-statured people in simple clothing wereban nok, “country bumpkins” whose dialect was crude to their ears. When TV came along they became the fall guys in Thai comedies, and in everyday life they had to suffer the contempt of those above them.

Keyes describes how the people of this region became Thai through an expansion of the national bureaucracy, the centralising of the Buddhistsangha, and especially – since the 1930s – schools that educated both boys and girls. They learned to use the central Thai language and its various polite forms and, especially from the 1950s on, they learned to love the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Essentially, it was good old-fashioned nation building, and similar processes occurred for every region, including Bangkok, where the Chinese, for instance, needed to be turned into Thais.

Migration in search of work, especially overseas, transformed the lives of Isan’s peasants to the point where they became rural entrepreneurs. “By the early twenty-first century,” writes Keyes, “non-agricultural work had become the most significant source of cash income for villagers. The money villagers brought back from urban or overseas work was increasingly invested not in agriculture but in small enterprises such as convenience stores, repair shops, and food stalls as well as rice mills.” Importantly, it was also used to pay for higher education for children, of whom there were fewer now that women were embracing birth control.

Thaksin’s power base is in the north, around Chiang Mai, where the conditions suited full-scale commercial farming. This, too, caused migration from the countryside to the city and upward mobility through education. The north’s ethno-regional identity is strong – they are known as Khon Muang – but because their aristocracy had been seamlessly absorbed by the Siamese state they are not looked down on like the people of Isan. Indeed, Thai soap operas are more likely to romanticise old northern aristocratic life and emulate its speech forms.

In one sense, what had been forming in the Thai countryside by the time of Thaksin’s rise in the late 1990s was a rural entrepreneurial class determined to better their lives and sweep away any bureaucratic obstacles. Thaksin the mega-entrepreneur played to this audience perfectly, and his million-baht-per-village loan scheme, alongside cheap universal healthcare, won him unwavering support. The majority of pro-Thaksin activists in the Red Shirt movement are in their forties or older – exactly the group that has made the transition from scarcity to having tasted the good life. Big, shiny cars are now ubiquitous on Isan’s highways; as one Red Shirt follower said, “We are not going back to riding motorcycles.”

This doesn’t quite fit with journalistic clichés about the “rural poor.” In the same way, bland assertions about the “Bangkok middle class” blur the changing urban landscape...




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