Thailand is the country that has had the most number of coups in modern history. This says a lot about how troubled Thai politics is and how deep polarization occurs in this relatively progressive and tourist-laden Asian country. The battle between the two opposing mass movements, the Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts, created pernicious polarization according to McCoy and Rahman’s (2016) dynamic model of polarization.
So, how did this Yellow and Red divide happen? Polarization in Thailand emerged in 2005 when people took to the streets to protest against the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a beloved figure to the poor and the rural masses. These protesters are called the Yellow Shirts, composed mainly of urban middle and upper classes and backed by the royal-military elites. They staged a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected Thaksin government in 2006. This incident led to the creation of a pro-Thaksin mass movement called the Red Shirts, which are backed by the rural people and urban poor. The clashes and confrontation between the two political camps became so violent that they led to a large number of deaths and injuries, political instability, paralyzed government, military intervention, and ultimately, democratic breakdown. As the conflict deepened, people were forced to choose sides and participate in the deadly game, even spreading to societal channels of families, friends, and communities.
In an article by Prajak Kongkirati (2019) entitled “From Illiberal Democracy to Military Authoritarianism: Intra-Elite Struggle and Mass-Based Conflict in Deeply Polarized Thailand”, he argued that the populist rise of Thaksin in 2001 led to polarization in Thailand. To start, the 1997 financial crisis and the new constitution that same year enabled the rise of Thaksin as a new political player together with his party, the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party. In particular, the 1997 constitution was aimed to fix Thai parliamentary democracy through the creation of new organizations, mechanisms, and rules, in which Thaksin and his TRT party effectively adapted to. A good businessman as he is, Thaksin used the 1997 crisis to his advantage by building his own party composed of leading capitalists. Furthermore, he sought for monopolistic control and a single-party government compared to the previous administrations that shared power in a multi-party coalition. This gave impetus to TRT’s landslide victories, winning six consecutive elections after its formation. Thaksin’s personality, populist policies, and shrewd campaign methods were the keys to the said success. In this manner, Thaksin and the TRT became an invincible force in the electoral battle and the former as a threat to the old network of elites or the traditional power of the royal-military-bureaucratic alliance. Given Thaksin’s firm control of the government, the triad alliance resorted to extraparliamentary measures to regain their power, privilege, and supremacy. Almost two decades have passed and Thai politics is going deeper into the dilemma.
With this, I argue that orange (unity of the Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts) will not happen anytime soon. First, the polarization is fueled by an action-reaction dynamic. When Thaksin’s policies aimed to empower the poor, the upper classes felt threatened. The use of unconstitutional means by the royal-military network to unseat Thaksin upset the Red Shirts. And when the latter responded with radical measures in defense of electoral democracy, the insecurity of the establishment deepened and so, it struck back with more aggressive measures. To reiterate what was aforementioned, the Red Shirt movement only emerged as a response to the 2006 coup, when Thaksin realized that his government will be vulnerable in the face of elites without an organized mass movement. This echoed what Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) stated in the book “How Democracies Die” – the importance of how the opposition will react because it is in this reaction that the politics of the months and even years to come will be determined.
Second, it is more than an elite-driven conflict. From just being forced to take sides in politics, the hostility created an ideological change. The conflict involves a large number of people, 200,000 to 300,000, who are mobilized by both camps to join protests. Outside the streets, several million others support them through different media channels. It is in their enthusiasm and commitment that explain why the ideologies of movement participants have been changed, affecting all aspects of life. To add, perception of the opponent became outright hate, violence, and has led to—what Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) stated in the same book—loss of mutual toleration or the respect and regard of both competing parties to one another as legitimate rivals. The Yellow Shirts used social media to spread rumors, false information, and accusations against Thaksin and his supporters. In response, the Red Shirts did the same. The conflict even led to Ad Hominem or character attacks, with the Yellow Shirts calling the Red Shirts “buffalo”, “lizard”, and “scum of the earth.” One can argue that Thaksin’s populism really came at the expense of the social and personal disposition of the entire Thai public.
Third, although the Thai economy is going well, income and wealth disparities have widened. It can be said that people who joined the Red Shirts had lower incomes, less education, and less life security compared to the Yellow Shirts which comprise the urban middle and upper classes. Furthermore, in Thaksin’s populist policies, the urban middle class felt that they will be burdened with the cost of these populist programs which will greatly benefit the poor but give none to them. This also comes with the narrative that although the urban middle class are considered influential in shaping public opinion and social agenda, they are a minority in electoral politics – a very powerful avenue in choosing those that will be in power.
Fourth, the coups against Thaksin in 2006 and his sister Yingluck in 2014 projected that the Thai government is unstable and without unity, with the two polarizing political camps always watching one another’s move and failures. Toppling down a democratically-elected government to replace it with another one and toppling this government down again creates a situation of despair.
Among other differences, with the Yellow Shirts wanting to uphold “Thai-style democracy” and the Red Shirts “populist democracy”, the orange color of unity in Thailand will not happen any time soon (just as the photo above suggests). If I may say, the gap between the two poles might go on further, now that General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the 2014 coup, was elected as Prime Minister in the recently held national elections.
Photo: Al Jazeera