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Who Lost Thailand?

TOKYO – Thailand, Southeast Asia’s most developed and sophisticated economy, is teetering on the edge of the political abyss. Yet most of the rest of Asia appears to be averting its eyes from the country’s ongoing and increasingly anarchic unrest. That indifference is not only foolish; it is dangerous. Asia’s democracies now risk confronting the same harsh question that the United States faced when Mao Zedong marched into Beijing, and again when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah in Iran. Who, they will have to ask, lost Thailand?

Much of the world is wondering how such a successful economy could allow its politics to spin out of control. What accounts for the armies of protesters – distinguished, gang-like, by the color of their shirts – whose mutual antipathy often borders on nihilistic rage?

The roots of the current unrest extend back more than a decade, to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s first electoral victory in 2001. Thaksin’s triumph did not represent the normal alternation in power that one finds in a democracy. Instead, his victory heralded the political rise of the country’s poor, long-silenced rural majority. Bangkok’s entrenched elite recoiled in alarm.

But, instead of learning to compete with Thaksin for the votes of Thailand’s rural poor, the country’s urban elite (including the powerful military) sought to delegitimize his rule. When he was re-elected by an even larger majority, his government was overthrown, his political party was banned by the Supreme Court, and he was forced to flee the country after corruption charges against him led to a criminal conviction.