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Originally published May 19, 2010 at 9:03 PM | Page modified May 20, 2010 at 8:22 AM

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Roots of crisis in Thailand

How did Thailand get into this crisis? A weak political structure combined with widening class disparities.

Special to The Seattle Times

About the author

Darryl N. Johnson is the former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand. He is currently on the faculty of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

How did Thailand get into this crisis? And how does it get out of it?

The answer to the first question: a weak political structure combined with widening class disparities. The urban rich, mainly in Bangkok, have gotten richer, while the rural poor, mainly in the Northeast, have gotten poorer. But the lines have become blurred as more rural people, especially young men, have migrated to the cities to find work as taxi drivers or construction workers. Thailand is also a major source of labor to the Middle East and elsewhere.

This internal and external migration has brought higher expectations, both economic and political, and those expectations have mostly not been met. The so-called Red Shirt demonstrators in Bangkok draw predominantly from this large body of discontented young men.

Their figurehead is former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom tycoon before he went into politics in the late 1990s. Thaksin ran for office on a platform of free or low-cost services for the poor — virtually free health care, a village-level small-loan program, a "holiday" on loan repayment, the promotion of local crafts, and others.

He also promised to get the economy back on track after the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. But what made Thaksin so popular was that he actually did what he said he would do. And he was rewarded at the ballot box, winning the office of prime minister in 2001, and winning by a larger margin in 2005. But Thaksin was never popular with the Bangkok elite — the traditional movers and shakers of Thai society. He was seen as an upstart who did not play by the old rules. Some felt that he did not pay proper respect to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is now 82 years old and in poor health.

Thaksin was the target of frequent criticism that he took advantage of his official position for personal financial gain, and that his government was run by cronies. His most egregious act was to manage the sale of his family-owned telecom company, Shin Satellite, to the sovereign wealth fund of the Singapore government, for $1.9 billion, virtually tax-free.

This action, in January 2006, led to a rising chorus of opposition by demonstrators who wore yellow shirts — the color associated with the king. At one point, the Yellow Shirts closed down Bangkok's two main airports. That phase culminated in the overthrow of Thaksin by a bloodless military coup in September 2006, while he was at the United Nations in New York. The troops were welcomed at the time, but the government they installed, while not corrupt, was also not effective.

Thaksin fled the country in 2008 before a court sentenced him to two years in prison for helping his wife buy land from the government while still in power.

In subsequent elections, Thaksin's proxies won but were disqualified for various reasons. So the current government, led by former opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, was cobbled together from several opposition parties and some local potentates. While the process was consistent with the constitution, it did not derive from the ballot box — one of the main complaints of the Red Shirts. Even though Thaksin is now a fugitive, he remains a major player in Thai politics, and his followers might still win a fair election.

What now? The first priority for Prime Minister Abhisit and his government is to re-establish order and to repair the roads, parks and buildings so the residents of Bangkok and other major cities can return to more normal lives after nearly two months of disruption.

The second priority is to reconstitute a functioning government in which the army will be a key component, but not the sole component. The third priority, which could mollify some of the protesters, is to lay out a schedule leading to new elections. Abhisit already offered to hold elections in November, but he withdrew that offer when the Red Shirts failed to match it by closing down their demonstrations and returning home.

Will that suffice? In the short run, probably yes. Many people have been traumatized by the intensity of this struggle, which is not typical in Thailand, "the land of smiles." Some healing words from the king would help.

But the king and his advisers clearly do not want to be seen as meddling in political affairs. Meanwhile, the economy, especially the major tourism sector, has taken a major hit. And the long-term prospects are murky at best. The fractures in Thai society which have been exposed by this death and destruction will not be quickly healed.

Darryl N. Johnson can be reached at darrylnj@u.washington.edu

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