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15 Apr, 2009 15:11

Spin-a-riot, or how Thailand is being pushed towards civil war

Spin-a-riot, or how Thailand is being pushed towards civil war

The recent street protests of a magnitude large enough to disrupt an ASEAN summit guarded by 5,000 security personnel in Bangkok and Pattaya have put Thailand watchers around the world on high alert.

Such alarm is justified, as an armed conflict that could explode into a real civil war shoot-out does not seem far off.

However, with their usual perfect sense of equilibrium, the Thais stopped right before the imaginary red line and went back to their interrupted New Year celebrations. It commands respect, how swiftly the order to disperse issued by the leaders of the ‘red shirts’ was executed by the rank and file. It looked almost like a power demonstration by Thaksin Shinawatra loyalists, who only gave the government of Abhisit Vejajiva a taste of their actual strength and promised to give more when they are back after the holiday.

Talk shows instead of soaps

Driving around Bangkok in February and March, prior to the big entrance of the red shirts, I listened to the radio. I was there to cover the ASEAN summit in Hua Hin and the extradition case of Victor Bout. The traffic was as bad as ever, so a lot of time was spent in the car with the radio on. It was definitely worth it. Unlike in the past, every station now has a political talk show. In Thai, of course – but there was even one in English!

Light music was definitely in exile. In radio studios professors of political science and MPs were more welcome than popular singers. The range of opinions and points of view was wide and the language varied from polite to borderline rude, when it seemed that even the remnants of self-censorship and political correctness on the part of the anchors and their guests were long since gone.

Television, a more entertaining medium by definition, also had many more talk shows than I could remember from my time as a foreign correspondent here. They were milder in their approach than the radio programs. In the constant competition for airtime these talk shows were second only to soap opera and sports programs. For some TV channels they were prime time priority above all other things.

At the Thammasat University School of Journalism where I used to teach a part-time course titled ‘Cold War propaganda in the electronic media of the USSR and the USA’ I was told this time round that television talk show ratings are getting closer and closer to those of regular TV shows, and that political awareness is rising sharply throughout the nation, as university opinion surveys show.

Thai democracy as a species

The Thais take their democracy seriously. Unlike their neighbors, who developed their notions of democracy basing on the democratic values received as part of their colonial heritage, the Thais have been building their democracy by picking the best-suiting practices from Western nations of their own choice, always comparing ‘the records’ and choosing what they thought was useful to them.

In most cases their choice was right. In some it wasn’t, but the logic of the democratic process took care of peeling off the unnecessary and unfitting, and letting all the rest grow. The Thai democracy had to go through a series of tough tests in the form of military coups and parliamentary crises, and still it lived and prospered.

The base for the most recent period of democratic development was laid in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, now the Chairman of the Privy Council. He was the last appointed Prime Minister in between the dictatorships of the 1970s and the next democratically elected head of government (Chatchai Choonhavan, 1988). In the eight years he was in power, Field Marshal Prem stopped the Communist insurgency by mostly peaceful means, bringing scores of former students-turned-guerillas back to real life and their families into the cities. The constitution was amended and new electoral laws created and adopted.

More importantly for this column, under Prem the media, always a major part of Thai everyday life, gained back its independence in full. TV and radio talk show hosts and newspaper columnists became famous and powerful. Their influence increased greatly after 1988 and wasn’t weakened, not even by the coup of 1991 and Bloody May in 1992. One friend, a foreign affairs columnist of one of the leading Thai newspapers, once boasted that his paper is capable of toppling a government. I believed then, and I am sure of that today, because the events of 2005–2009 have shown the power of the media in a way not ever seen before. But it was a different medium though: it was not print press but television that has become the main locomotive of social unrest in Thailand.

How the trouble began

In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, then still at the helm of the Thai government, told me in an interview that he saw the likeness of Thailand and Russia, among other things, in the similarity of social stratification of the two nations. Both have a strong class of people with high income and unlimited opportunities for education, career, healthcare, coexisting in the same country with a class of people of severely limited means who cannot afford many things that the upper class takes for granted.

The former Prime Minister was right about one thing and wrong about another. As far as the incomes are concerned, many Russians live below the poverty line or barely above it and, like poor Thais, they are not starving. But if in Thailand the difference in social status automatically leads to a generally low level of education among the poor, and this set-up is the result of social inequality justified by centuries of history and tradition, in Russia, considerably fresh from its 70-odd years of Socialism, being poor does not yet mean being poorly educated – and in many cases it means just the opposite.

It means, among other things, that Russians, given their education and their political and economic trials and tribulations of early 1990s, have developed a kind of immunity to media spin, while Thais, with their generally lower level of education and limited experience with media spin, were more vulnerable to the ministrations of televised spin doctors.

When Thaksin, a self-made technocrat and media mogul, won a landslide victory under nationalist slogans (it was quite logical after the Asian crisis of 1997 and clumsy interference by the IMF), his victory became a record in the history of Thai democracy. For the first time one party, completely honestly, won a mathematical majority in parliament, guaranteeing itself a complete four-year term of office.

Four years later the public support was not as wide but still Thaksin’s party won a majority that was sufficient enough to nullify any attempts by the opposition at entering non-confidence votes. By then, however, the prime minister – whose government was composed of technocrats like himself, old political hands like the former, pre-crisis Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyut, and ex-Communists, who introduced a strong social safety orientation into government policies – has made some very influential enemies, including the famous TV host Sondhi Limthongkul.

Sondhi, one of the richest media owners before the crisis (His ‘The Manager Publishing Group’ owned several daily newspapers in Thai and English, half a dozen weekly magazines, TV and radio programs before 1997) lost all he owned apart from World Wide Web publications, and came back like a Phoenix from the ashes in 2003. He never became as rich as he used to be, but it doesn’t seem he ever set a goal to come back in that sense. He wanted a different life than the one he had before the crisis and before Thaksin.


Sondhi put all his efforts into several TV and radio talk shows, and very soon it became clear that he had an agenda. He was the first to don a yellow shirt on a daily basis. Usually Thais wear yellow on Mondays to express support for their King. In Southeast Asia it is not the date but the day of birth that is important – His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej was born on a Monday. He was the first to hint at the disrespect of the monarchy allegedly shown by Thaksin. And he was the first to point out irregularities, real and imagined, in the budget acquisitions made by the government.

Many of his statements and hints, if translated into English or Russian, would have sounded childishly naïve – like when he accused President Vladimir Putin of bribing Thaksin to sign a barter deal on Sukhoi-30 aircraft, but the least educated believed him, and his following grew by the day. Sondhi became the first core leader and one of the co-founders of the Alliance for Democracy, the quasi-political organizations controlling the ‘yellow-shirted crowds’.

By September 2006, the yellow shirts had peacefully demonstrated against Thaksin in great numbers (a 50,000-strong crowd was considered common) all over the capital, while Thaksin’s supporters from various Committees of the Poor and the like, spun up by their own TV agitators, gathered counter-crowds to match. The coup of September 19 happened on the day when rallies by both the sides were expected to be held simultaneously in the same area of Bangkok, while everyone had been worked up so much that bloodshed would have been inevitable, if not for the tanks in the streets.

Sondhi’s yellow-shirt movement returned to prominence (spring) and went all the way to notoriety (December, the airport siege) in 2007. In the same year someone among Thaksin’s supporters decided to wear red, the color from the Thai flag representing the nation. That was promoted through television too, and gave a uniting symbol to various organizations of the rural poor supporting Thaksin.

What’s in the future?

It is clear today that the February-March protests by the ‘red shirts’ cost Thailand slightly less in damage than the December rampage by the ‘yellow shirts.’ It is unclear if the red shirts are going to return to the streets and the government buildings after Songkran, the Thai New Year holiday. And it is unclear whether they will emulate the tactics of their opponents, who actually entered the premises of the Government house and made a terrible mess, later repeated at the Suvannabhumi International airport (Thaksin Shinawatra’s baby).

What is also clear is that Thailand has entered a vicious circle. If the current government (note: appointed, not elected) goes and a new election is held, and if it is clean, then a pro-Thaksin party, most probably the Phua Thai party, is going to win it. Over 65% of Thais (the majority of the rural population) still support the ousted politician. In that case the yellow shirts are going to come back in protest, and they will come with a vengeance.

The reds will then react, bloodshed will follow, and there will be no other option than another military coup. But it is not clear to which extent the unity of the armed forces has suffered in the past couple of years. And then again – the military cannot hold power for long, and so an election will eventually follow, with the same completely predictable results.

Well, there is another option, actually, but that option is civil war.

One very important way of preventing it may be the change in the media message, but forcing that change upon the media is senseless. That is a matter of journalistic responsibility. Media agitators may see it in a different way than we do.

Evgeny Belenkiy, RT.