Thailand's Two Conflicts

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters react as their leaders announce their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Protest leaders told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

By Duncan McCargo

This article is drawn from a longer commentary in the Aug.-Sept. 2010 issue of the IISS journal Survival.

One country, two conflicts: a simmering insurgency on the southern border, and several rounds of violent clashes in the capital city, a thousand kilometers away. But Thailand's two conflicts may have more in common than meets the eye. Both reflect the unraveling of Siam's 19th-century form of rule—the domination of royal Bangkok over the untamed hinterlands, and the substitution of internal colonialism for European empire.

The small Malay state of Patani, today wracked by insurgency, was formally incorporated into Siam only in 1909, and relations with Bangkok have been troubled ever since. Since 2004, more than 4,200 people have died in Southern Thailand, the world's third-most intensive insurgency after Iraq and Afghanistan. But an expensive security response—including the deployment of around 40,000 troops from all over the country to the region—has failed to quell the violence, and serious attacks are now back on the rise.

Trained in conventional warfare and with little history of combat, the Royal Thai Army has struggled to respond effectively to the violence. Successive governments have tried to address the conflict through parallel talk of "reconciliation" (samanachan), a term first popularized by the 2005–06 National Reconciliation Commission. The central problem with the reconciliation discourse is its blindness to politics. In the South, talk of reconciliation involves ignoring the political aspirations of the Malay Muslim population. Thailand has 76 provinces: one of them, Bangkok, has an elected governor, while the rest have appointed governors who are rotated and assigned by the Ministry of the Interior.

The southern border provinces elect fewer than a dozen members of the national parliament, and will never be able to speak with a loud enough voice to effect any substantive changes. Hailing from a peripheral region of Thailand, Malay Muslims are expected to kowtow to Bangkok. In place of political representation, participation, and control, Bangkok pays lip-service to the rhetoric of justice. Where flagrant abuses have been committed, as in the case of 78 unarmed Tak Bai protestors who perished mainly from suffocation while in military custody on the night of October 25, 2004, justice has yet to be done. In May 2009 a Songkla court concluded security officials involved had simply been carrying out their duties and had not intended to kill anyone.

The recent Bangkok protests are both similar and different. On the one side the ruling Democrat Party, the military and the monarchical network, and Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—the yellow-shirted protestors who occupied Government House and eventually closed down Bangkok’s airports in late 2008. On the other side are former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-06), his political allies, and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) red-shirt movement. The UDD disrupted the April 2009 ASEAN summit in Pattaya, and occupied central parts of Bangkok between March and May 2010. Clashes between the security forces, tens of thousands of red-shirts and their allies involved nearly 90 deaths, thousands of injuries, and a spate of grenade and arson attacks on buildings in central parts of the city.

Next: "The two conflicts illustrate the limits of military force."

Most of the familiar mantras repeated in the international media coverage of the UDD protests are woefully simplistic. The red-shirts are not all poor farmers, and not all yellow-shirts are members of the Western-educated elite. Their demonstrations are not spontaneous outpourings of resentment against the Thai aristocracy, despite the fact that some protestors wore T-shirts proclaiming themselves to be slaves (prai).

The UDD is a set of loose, relatively autonomous networks, mainly but not entirely rurally based, organized around community radio stations and the PTV satellite station. This network exploits the rhetoric of social justice to mobilize voters in support of "pro-Thaksin" political parties, building on the former premier's populist programs. Many local UDD leaders are vote-canvassers, the grassroots political organizers who form the lynchpin of Thailand’s electoral politics; they in turn are activated by pro-Thaksin MPs. Other key support bases for the UDD include elected local politicians, self-employed and semi-skilled workers, low-ranking security officials, and contract farmers: lower-middle-class people, not those living at the margins of Thai society.

The response of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government to the red-shirt protests has several crucial parallels with the approach of successive governments to the Southern conflict. Firstly, trying to discredit the political salience of the issue will not work. Despite the movement's lack of ideological consistency, and the fact that many of the protestors were simply mobilized by pro-Thaksin politicians, the UDD protests reflected a seismic shift in Thailand's political order, the rise of new power networks at the local and national levels, and the emergence of bold and vigorous interest groups that will not just go away. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is now 82 years old, and the vexing question of the royal succession looms over all other issues, creating growing levels of national anxiety. Thailand has entered an era of end-of-reign politics characterized by deep social unease.

Secondly, the two conflicts illustrate the limits of military force. In the South, heavy-handed security tactics have failed; in Bangkok the military has cleared the streets of Bangkok, but at the cost of scores of lives, and using tactics that clearly violated international law—the root causes remain unaddressed. Thirdly, both conflicts illustrate the shortcomings of a discourse about justice and reconciliation. Newly-established reform and reconciliation committees do not bring together both sides of Thailand’s political divide, and so stand a very limited chance of success.

Thailand's two recent violent conflicts both testify to a seismic shift in the country's political landscape. Long suppressed by the Bangkok elite, forces of resistance, based primarily in the provinces, are challenging Thailand’s hierarchies and traditional power structures. Major changes in those structures, such as genuine decentralization to the regions, are long overdue. Instead of empty talk of reconciliation, perhaps the time has come for a real national conversation about the country's emerging political realities—and for an elite pact between the warring factions.

Duncan McCargo is author of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, winner of Asia Society's Bernard Schwartz Book Award.