The Thai Political Crisis of 2014: Necessary Cultural and Historical Background

Leader of the protest movement Suthep Theuaksuban is mobbed on the street by well-wishers pressing donations upon him (Credit: Tip Placzek).

Memo #303

By Jim Placzek – james.placzek [at] ubc.ca

Jim PlaczekThe key to understanding the current crisis in Thailand is Thai national identity. For decades a government office has been successfully promoting symbols of this identity. The central symbol of that identity is the monarchy. The elite of Thailand, including the military, have been called “the network monarchy”and the nation’s fifth king is literally worshipped in homes and shops. Due to the long reign of the present (ninth) king, national identity is now focussed upon him personally.

Thai national identity is also focussed on Bangkok, which dominates the country as the world’s greatest “primate city.” Most upper and middle class Bangkok residents are Sino-Thai, but they completely identify as Thais and are devoted to the monarchy. Despite a common language, they tend to view rural people paternalistically, as uneducated servants or labourers.

Two recent developments have transformed this traditional picture. First, rural Thais now study and work abroad, meet foreigners daily, and have an international perspective. Second, they have found their political voice by electing the parties of exiled telecom billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who has positioned himself as the agent of modernization and social change, thereby threatening the special role of the king. This has left his critics sounding anachronistic and anti-democratic, and limited to a Bangkok base.

These developments alone, however, cannot explain the remarkable durability of the mass protests (seven months) nor the extreme popularity of protest leader Suthep Theuaksuban, nor the successful removal of the elected government. The explanation is that the protest side still controls the crucial symbols of Thai national identity, which cross-cuts the urban-rural division. This helps to explain why there has thus far been no violent guerrilla reaction to the recent military coup of May 22: the rural population also identifies with the constructed Thai national identity and its associations of modernity and prosperity.

A consistent historical pattern in Thai crisis management is as follows: conservative positions are held until untenable, then change is extremely rapid, led by a respected neutral personality. Presently there is no such leader, but based on this pattern, we should expect an eventual resolution to this crisis, with limited bloodshed and at least the beginnings of a new Thai national identity.

Jim Placzek is an Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia and a former instructor in the Asian Studies Department at Langara College, Vancouver, Canada.

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