The past year, students in Thailand have been calling for radical reshaping of their Royalist Military Government. This kind of sustained grassroots movement is unprecedented for Thailand as, for the past two decades, protests have been backed by politicians. Even the 2014 coup had barely any resistance and military was able to successfully takeover without any bloodshed. Though these protests are primarily being viewed as anti-monarchy protests, it’s against royalist military establishment and the increasing economic inequality that they have systematically created.
History of Thailand’s Economy
Since the protests started, many, especially the Bank of Thailand, have been claiming that the protests will negatively impact Thailand’s economy. However, this is extremely disingenuous as the protests are rooted in Thailand’s dismal economic conditions.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis had adverse impact on economic and social systems. It originated from problems in many sectors- finance, government, management and real production- because of the economic liberalisation of the 90s. “The boom saw the rise of a provincial ‘new rich’ that became engaged in local and national politics” and created a vast divide between the rich elite and the majority. The IMF pushed these nations to attract foreign capital, as a result of which Thai private capital grew at the expense of foreign debt.
IMF provided conditional support, forcing them to impose a series of economic reforms, most glaringly to reduce spending and deficits. As David Graeber points out, “deficit funding” largely includes healthcare, education and other welfare programs. For instance, in 1999 Thailand reduced the scope of the public education system and had to cut funding in its Healthcare during the 1997-98 crisis.
In this context, businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra garnered a folk-hero status in the late 90s and, came into power in 2001. He was able to transform Thailand into a welfare state, with key policies including soft loans for every community, farmer debt moratorium, and a universal health care program. As a capitalist, he was also favoured by businessmen. This, along with the fact that Thaksin remained wealthy despite the crisis assured his landslide victory in 2005.
However, these policies also pushed an urban-rural divide with urban populations moving towards the traditional monarchists. He was opposed largely by the middle class- who opposed taxes for welfare schemes- and the traditional monarchists, such as the Democrats, and the palace itself. So, the next year, People’s Alliance for Democracy began street demonstrations that led to a military coup on 19 September 2006. They claimed that they are seizing power to fix the economic state of the country, despite the fact that the economy was recovering under Thaksin. Subsequent Governments favoured increased competitiveness, innovation and productivity.
Military & Monarchy: A Deadly Alliance
Thailand has a long history of military coups, with 13 successful coups, with the most recent ones being in 2006 and 2014. Part of the reason for this is that they have been supported by Royal decree.
The monarch and the military have used each other to legitimise themselves. In 2006, Thaksin was overthrown because he posed a serious threat to the political domination of the monarchy, whose power has been sustained by the military. The televised announcement of the coup was made in front of pictures of the king and queen and given a royal audience. Many members of the military also wore yellow, the colour of the king, suggesting links between the two establishments.
Since 2006 to 2014, it had been a continuous back and forth between Thaksin and associated groups against the military backed by the palace. In 2014, despite being ill late King Bhumibol was part of the army’s legitimation plan. Then, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck- who was Prime Minister- was ousted by the military- to protect and shore “up the power of the monarchy in preparation for the imminent royal succession.”
The protests were initially triggered by the court-ordered dissolution of the Future Forward Party in late February 2020. The FFP had come in third in the 2019 Election polls and sought to restrain the military’s power in decentralise the bureaucracy, and improve social and economic equality. The 2019 Elections were also believed to have been rigged favour the Palang Pracharath Party, a civil-military state-sponsored political party with ties to the military junta that ruled the country after the 2014 coup. The junta also created a new Constitution in 2017 which favours the military and disadvantages large political parties. Combined, protestors lost faith in the so-called democracy.
But the second wave, which began in July, is ongoing and continues to gain strength. It was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and enforcement of the lockdown Emergency Decree and spread nationwide. In the second wave, protestors presented three demands to the Government of Thailand: the dissolution of parliament, ending intimidation of the people, and the drafting of a new constitution.
After the continued use of violence in the form of water canons, firing and tear gas failed, on October 15th, Thailand declared a state of Emergency. But the students doubled down on the 22nd, giving Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha three days to resign and meet key demands.
Through their combined efforts, the Military and the Monarchy have been able to hoard power and resources among the rich and elite. Because of this, Thailand, today, has the highest wealth inequality. The heart of the protests- then- is a radical transformation of the Military-Monarchy economic system that has been constructed over the course of the last 20 years.