Monday 23 May 2022 | 23:53 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 23:53 | SYDNEY

The danger of a Thai civil war


Graeme Dobell

5 July 2011 12:40

The depressing reality is that a clear-cut election victory in Thailand may not settle anything. The people have voted decisively but the popular voice is far from decisive.

Politicians still tear at each other, the King totters slowly towards his grave, the military and the elite agonise, and Thailand still confronts the danger of a civil war. After five years of commotion and sometimes bloody contest, Thailand's nightmare is that the election result merely hits the reset button to restart the same cycle of conflict. 

The previous two parties expressing Thaksin Shinawatra's political mastery have been outlawed. Will this third manifestation, led by his sister, be able to avoid the same fate?

This is the great curse of Thailand's distorted democratic deadlock: 'The election winners can't rule and the rulers can't win elections.'

That elegant judgement is offered by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who says the true meaning of the election will be decided by what happens next in Bangkok and the temper of the red and yellow forces: 'If the two sides continue to treat politics as a win-at-all-costs, winner-takes-all game, recent history will repeat itself. But if they reach a compromise and establish some norms that both abide by, there is a chance for progress.' 

After such a clear election result, why should the spectre of civil war even be mentioned? The answer, so often demonstrated since Thaksin was overthrown in 2006, is that the conflict is more than just a struggle between the Bangkok elite and the country; the Shakespearean element is the conflict surrounding the monarchy. 

Thailand is afflicted by a dysfunctional royal family as much as a poisonous political culture. The vigorous use of the lèse majesté law means this is still a dangerous discussion inside Thailand, but understanding the tumult requires tackling one of the great media taboos of Asia: what King Bhumibol's 65-year rule has really done to Thailand.

Our understanding of the King Lear element in the Thai agony has been vastly illuminated by the WikiLeaks masterwork being produced by the former Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. Marshall describes his distillation of 3000 US diplomatic cables on Thailand as 'lèse majesté on an epic scale'. This is a statement of plain truth, not bravado. To publish as he has, Marshall had to sacrifice his 17-year career with Reuters

Marshall's series — entitled 'Thailand's Moment of Truth' — is being published in instalments here, based on cables on Thailand, filed between 2004 and 2010. The result is journalism of the highest order.

Joshua Kurlanzick makes a fair call in describing it as 'the biggest bombshell of reportage on Thailand in decades... Marshall's account is the most thorough, and in many ways damning, assessment of the royal family's influence over politics in history'.

Marshall uses the cables to construct a sophisticated history, illustrating the 'absolutely pivotal role' of the monarchy in Thai politics: 'Explaining Thai politics without reference to the role of the palace is like trying to tell the story of the Titanic without making any mention of the ship.'

Combining his own understanding of Thailand with the US cables, Marshall details the banned topics that fuel Thai gossip but which can never be openly discussed:

  • The sense of fear, even panic, that grips all levels of Thai society as the King's death draws closer.
  • The 20 year estrangement between the King and Queen.
  • The suggestion in a 2009 cable that the Crown Prince suffers from 'a blood-related medical condition' which requires regular blood transfusions. Various sources claim the Prince is HIV positive or has Hepatitis C or is afflicted by a rare form of 'blood cancer'
  • For many years, Queen Sirikit actively promoted Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn's interests and was seen as his greatest backer in the face of widespread public opposition and open preference for Princess Sirindhorn. The growing rift between the Queen and the Prince in recent years has fundamentally altered the power dynamics underlying the country's political crisis.
  • Thaksin has built a close relationship with the Prince. As Marshall observes: 'The nightmare scenario for the establishment is that upon Bhumibol's death, Thaksin sweeps back to power as Vajiralongkorn takes the throne, and the two men sweep away everything the royalists have fought for and take vicious revenge on those who have crossed them'.

The election of Thaksin's sister ('my clone') breaths a huge gust of life into that nightmare scenario. The moment of truth for Thailand's monarchy is approaching but the uncertainties abound. Marshall offers this judgement (Page 33/ Part 2) : 

'The modern monarchy is under threat because the military and bureaucracy have for decades used the palace to legitimize an increasingly unsustainable political status quo based on myths that cannot stand up to scrutiny. As Thailand enters the 21st century with its citizens better educated and better informed than they have ever been in history, more and more people are quite naturally questioning the fables underpinning the official narrative, and more and more people are demanding openness, accountability and a greater voice in politics. Rather than adapt to accommodate this inevitable — and positive — pressure for change, Thailand's ruling elites are unable to find any better response than paranoia and repression. But they cannot win. It is inevitable that, sooner or later, the archaic power structure still in place in Thailand and the fairy tales invented to sustain it will be swept away. The only question is whether this happens through an inclusive and peaceful process of evolution or through destructive and violent revolution. The looming death of Bhumibol has made the crisis even more dangerously acute. Popular reverence and love for Rama IX is the magical ingredient that has induced Thailand's people to suspend their disbelief and put their faith in the fairy tale. Many Thais are quite rightly deeply suspicious of the actions and motives of the ruling elite and the military, but believe that as long as the wise and virtuous Bhumibol approves of them, then everything must be alright. When he goes, the glue holding the whole increasingly unstable edifice together will dissolve.'

Photo, of the King of Thailand superimposed on a building in Bangkok, by Flickr user neilalderney123.