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The Thailand Crisis: An Homage to Catalonia?

By Todd Crowell

SNA (Tokyo) — Bangkok in 2014 is looking more and more like Madrid in 1936 every day. That was the year that the bloody Spanish Civil War began, which lasted until 1939 and killed hundreds of thousands. Could such a bloody event engulf the Land of Smiles?

Consider these parallels: In 1931 the Spaniards adopted a new liberal constitution and enshrined strict separation of the monarchy and government. Similarly, Thailand adopted a liberal constitution in 1997 with numerous checks and balances. The King had already been a constitutional monarch, since the Revolution of 1932.

The Spanish crisis was preceded by several elections which, though considered fair, failed to satisfy one side or the other. Thailand has held five elections that have been won by forces loyal to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, including one in 2011 that was won convincingly by the Pheu Thai Party (the latest of several pro-Shinawatra parties) and brought his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to power.

The latest polling, held on February 2, is not likely to change the situation, as the main opposition, the Democrat Party, boycotted the election, and the “yellow shirt” opposition effectively blocked voting in several stations. No results were announced; the Election Commission cited efforts to block access to polling stations and failure to hold elections in parts of the opposition-dominated south.

Two days after the election, the Democrat Party requested that the Constitutional Court invalidate the election, dissolve the Pheu Thai Party, and disenfranchise its leaders, including the prime minister herself. That Thai law that requires a certain percentage of voters must turn out to validate an election probably means there will not be a quorum for parliament to convene.

Thailand is dividing along several lines, between the “yellow shirts,” worn by the anti-government protestors, and the “red shirts” worn by the supporters of the present government, formerly anti-government protestors themselves; and between the rich and middle class against the poor. There are geographical divisions as well, between the people of the populous north and northeast and those in the south, with Bangkok in between.

The Royal Thai Army, instigator of numerous coups in the past, is in a quandary. The army was humbled by its previous stint in power following the 2006 coup. Many conscripts hail from the same rural classes that dominate the red shirt movement, and it is clear that their officers are uncertain they would obey any future commands to suppress the movement. The current government, loyal to Thaksin, has some attributes of the Republican or Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War. They claimed the mantle of legitimacy, endorsed several elections before that. Meanwhile, it is common, for Westerners anyway, to describe with some justification the yellow shirted protestors as anti-democratic “fascists.” Yellow shirts and red shirts, fascists and democrats, monarchists and anti-monarchists, class against class–it all seems so retro, like an old movie from the mid-20th century.

King Bhumibol has said little and done almost nothing that anyone knows about to defuse the crisis, as he has done in Thailand’s numerous crises past, to restore a balance of power and to maintain the peace. It is feared that the 86-year-old King may be too feeble, or too sick, to make his weight and tremendous prestige felt once again.

The red shirts claim that they too loyally support the King, but their enthusiasm for the monarchy is markedly thinner than those usually called yellow shirts, since that color denotes loyalty to the King. Meanwhile, the red shirt movement is beginning to take on the color of republicanism.

One long-time resident of Thailand recently told me, “I never thought I’d see the day when the [Royal] family lost its popularity and prestige, but it is seen as siding with the yellow shirts against the red shirts, who don’t hold up his portraits [at their protests].”

And it may be that the forces that are tearing the country apart are not any longer amenable to the King’s personal kind of palliative. Perhaps in the past he gained his reputation for even-handedness by adjudicating disputes only among the Thai elite. This may be one crisis, because it involves a much wider swatch of society, that the Thai people have to settle for themselves.

One major difference between Thailand 2014 and Spain 1936 is the lack of interest by anyone outside of Thailand. The Spanish Civil War was a landmark event in 20th century history because it became a kind of proxy war between democracy and the rising forces of communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany and Italy.

Nobody outside of Thailand has a dog in this fight, even as the country unravels. Maybe only those of us who have lived or visited there can feel the horror as the events unfold and feel the shame expressed even by the local media.

Perhaps this analysis is alarmist: Maybe the two sides will back away from the ultimate clash. Maybe the King will, for the last time in his long reign, spread his special balm and calm the situation. Maybe the yellow shirts will temper their protests or maybe the army will step in once again and restore stability. But there’s no reason at present to count on any of it.

Todd Crowell worked for Thailand-based Asia Times from 2006-2007. He is the author of Far From Worries: a Year in the King’s Town. He is currently based in Tokyo and is a contributing writer to the Shingetsu News Agency.