The Tragedy of Thailand

How a model of democratization became patient zero for the global rise of authoritarianism.

It may be hard to believe now, as blustery generals run Thailand, the army busts up gatherings of political opponents, and junta rule—in one form or another—seems like it might never end, but the country was once touted as an example of democratization. I myself made this argument in the 1990s and early 2000s. The country had held multiple free elections and passed one of the most progressive constitutions in Asia. It had a vibrant press, and regularly witnessed massive public rallies led by civil society groups.

Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok
by Claudio Sopranzetti
University of California Press, 328 pp.

I lived in Thailand from 1998 to 2001, and at that time society seemed to be overflowing with political discussions, arguments, and contested elections. I was hardly the only one to praise Thailand at the time. Freedom House rated Thailand as “Free” in their 2001 edition of Freedom in the World, their annual survey of each country in the world. (Thailand is now ranked “Not Free,” after having been ranked “Partly Free” for much of the 2000s and 2010s. Disclosure: I author several chapters of Freedom in the World, but did not author the Thailand chapter this year.) As I noted in a 2013 edited volume, Pathways to Freedom, many of the U.S. officials who traveled to the kingdom during this time lavished praise on its maturing democracy, an example of a place where the army had returned to the barracks for good.

The reversal of Thailand’s democracy began in 2001 with the election of the populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Both during the campaign and as prime minister, he excelled at recognizing and manipulating public grievances. He preyed on working-class Thais’ legitimate feelings of economic injustice. He also, however, outlined a real policy platform to address injustices, and succeeded in instituting populist policy reforms, many of which benefitted Thai society.

Unfortunately, some of these reforms were enacted at the expense of democratic norms and the rule of law. Then, when some middle-class and elite Thais realized that liberalism was being undermined, they took the wrong steps to fight back, and their reaction—including accepting and then encouraging a return of military rule—only cemented Thailand’s descent into autocracy.

The army, which was the most powerful player in politics in Thailand until the 1990s, seized power again in May 2014, its second coup in less than a decade; since then, democracy has collapsed. Online censorship in Thailand is now among the worst in Asia. The armed forces are making plans to dominate politics indefinitely, and new elections have been repeatedly postponed, though the army says it will hold them in early 2019.

There is a larger lesson to be learned from the trajectory of politics in Thailand. To gain power, Thaksin used political tactics very similar to those more recently adopted by leaders from Turkey and Hungary to the Philippines and, now, with the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States. Thaksin emerged after a period of austerity in Thailand, and like Law and Justice in Poland combined skillful pitting of rural voters against elites with effective economic policies. And like Rodrigo Duterte and many other modern-day populists, Thaksin identified dangerous “others” and targeted them, often while using these “others” to shore up his law-and-order credentials. Thaksin’s own anti-drug war in 2003—along with a broader war on “dark influences” that was popular with much of the public—utilized extra-judicial killings, and was eerily similar to Duterte’s current drug war. Thaksin also often highlighted his own wealth, positioning himself as the one man who could take measures to boost the economy, even if he did so without following democratic norms. This “I alone can fix it” style predated that of Narendra Modi, Duterte, and Trump.

As Thaksin pushed hard-line law-and-order policies, mainstream parties—like those in western Europe today—tried to co-opt his agenda so they wouldn’t look weak. Thailand could be considered patient zero in the global democratic decline. While it was once a positive example for the world, it has become a negative one, and foreshadowed the rise of populism elsewhere.

Why did Thailand descend into the harshest and longest-lasting army rule it has experienced in decades? In his new book, Owners of the Map, Oxford research fellow Claudio Sopranzetti, a longtime Thailand watcher who has closely studied working-class politics in the country, offers a fine-grained analysis of motorcycle taxi drivers in Thailand, and the ways in which their lives reflect the kingdom’s enormous economic and political changes over the past two decades. During that time, the drivers became politically empowered, and mobilized other working-class voters, until their movement was crushed by violence. In Bangkok—a city whose traffic makes the D.C. Beltway look like a country road—motorcycle taxi drivers zip passengers to destinations, flashing down side lanes and skittering between cars. Many drivers have come from the poorer and more rural north and northeast of the country, part of a mass movement in the 1980s and early 1990s as Thailand’s economy flourished. The boom was based in part on skillful government industrial policy and vast foreign investment, but in 1997 Thailand’s currency collapsed and its economy cratered. The drivers, like most working-class Thais, suffered through years of economic contraction; the late-1990s government austerity program, which bore some resemblance to the post–Great Recession austerity programs in Europe, provided fuel for populism in Thailand.

The most established Thai party, the Democrat Party (no relation to the U.S. Democratic Party), ran the country in the late 1990s, but many working-class Thais saw little difference between the Democrats and their rivals. The motorcycle taxi drivers, Sopranzetti writes, felt that not only did Thailand’s major political parties not represent them, those parties were also actively working to “keep the country’s lower classes in poverty and prevent their representatives from governing.”

There was some truth to this. Thailand’s major parties were generally non-ideological, often corrupt, and dominated by Bangkok elites and provincial barons. Although elections had become free and fair by the 1990s, after years of military/royal/technocrat rule parties rarely offered coherent policy platforms, instead handing out pork, mostly to the wealthy and the middle class. Thailand had one of the highest rates of economic inequality in Asia. Meanwhile, the spread of the Internet and, eventually, local radio stations, reduced the power of major news organizations that had provided coverage favorable to the army and traditional political elites. Rising education levels also had made it easier for politicians to win working-class Thais over with policy-based campaigns.

Conditions, then, were ripe for a modern-day populist strongman as the twenty-first century dawned. Into the void stepped Thaksin, a wealthy communications tycoon. He played “the people” against the elites, scorching the traditional political parties as he and his new party, Thai Rak Thai, campaigned in 2000 and early 2001.

Yet as Sopranzetti notes, Thaksin also campaigned on—and then, as prime minister, delivered—a raft of initiatives that helped the economy and pleased supporters. Sopranzetti lists some of the best-known and most effective Thaksin initiatives: a national universal health care plan, a public housing project, and a program to provide loans for small and medium-sized enterprises, all of which brought real assistance to the working class. Thaksin’s policies, he writes, helped foster entrepreneurship as a solution to inequality. They also empowered the Thai working class, like the motorcycle taxi drivers, to believe that their votes meant something—that they could elect a politician who would craft policies intended to assist them.

Thaksin did not just pass effective policies, however; he also shattered norms of constitutional democracy. He instituted no real mechanisms to prevent conflicts of interest between his political leadership and his family company. He undermined the bureaucracy and the central bank, disdained the court system, and had little regard for press freedom. He exacerbated an insurgency in southern Thailand by turning the security forces loose there, with few restraints. As Sopranzetti writes, Thaksin also framed the drug war as part of his larger war on “dark influences”; he intended to “subjugate the system of influence that profited from illegal activities” like drugs, logging, prostitution, and illegal gambling, which often preyed on the poor and deprived the state of revenue. By tackling these forces, Thaksin could play the tough guy, formalize parts of the underground economy, and appear to be helping working-class Thais, who were the most affected by illegal activities.

Meanwhile, traditional parties, often backed by Bangkok’s middle and upper classes, struggled to fight Thaksin on policy grounds, rather than simply demonizing the man and his supporters. Again, these developments predated the challenges traditional parties in Europe, North America, and Asia are having in figuring out ways to battle populist insurgents. Other opponents railed about Thaksin’s deviations from democratic norms and his often ruthless disregard for the rule of law.

Ultimately, however, the political elites gave up fighting Thaksin within the democratic process. Instead, after his party won a massive reelection victory in 2005, elites began to look for ways to win that did not involve the ballot box, accepting ever more authoritarian ways to “protect” liberalism.

Thai elites rallied in the Bangkok streets for months during 2005 and 2006. Some protestors were simply demanding that Thaksin end his conflicts of interest and restore democratic norms. But others were in favor of more drastic measures, calling on the king and the army to depose the prime minister. Behind the scenes, leaders of the armed forces (and possibly the monarchy) jostled and plotted; when Thaksin was out of the country in September 2006, the military launched a coup.

There is a larger lesson to be learned from the trajectory of politics in Thailand. To gain power, Thaksin used political tactics very similar to those more recently adopted by leaders from Turkey and Hungary to the Philippines and, now, with the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States.

Military leaders declared that the coup would only be a temporary fix. Thai elites thought it also would help pave the way to victory in the next election by one of the country’s older, traditional parties, like the Democrats, which would then restore Thailand’s constitutional democracy and elite rule. Thaksin was charged with corruption and eventually went into exile. Many of his party’s leaders were essentially banned from politics. The armed forces appointed a caretaker government, which oversaw a new constitution designed to limit elected politicians’ powers.

Still, it was a “soft coup”; the media was mostly left alone, and after the constitution was passed, the government allowed a relatively free and fair election in 2007. This election was won—to the dismay of elites and the middle class—handily by Thaksin’s reconstituted party, led by Thaksinite politicians who had not been banned. Clearly, Thaksin had energized a working-class movement that would be difficult to stop.

For nearly the next decade, Thailand was split by a struggle that caused repeated political crises and helped undermine the economy. Working with the courts, the bureaucracy, and military/royalist allies in parliament, Bangkok’s traditional power brokers undermined the Thaksinite party; in 2008, they engineered a kind of parliamentary coup that placed the Democrats in control of the lower house. In response, Thaksin supporters held massive street protests. As Sopranzetti notes, motorcycle taxi drivers—those vital conduits in Bangkok—would become staunch supporters of the demonstrations, ferrying people to protests, and in 2010 working-class Thaksin backers took over large areas of the capital, a literal invasion of Bangkok from the provinces that many Bangkok elites feared. The protests culminated in rallies that ended, in May, only after the military fired into crowds, killing at least 90 people.

In 2011, Thailand held another election. Again, the Democrats and other traditional parties failed to enunciate clear policy platforms or energize voters, and a Thaksinite party won, this time headed by Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck. She pursued populist economic policies, although she did not totally dominate the political system as Thaksin had.

Finally, in late 2013 and early 2014, the Thai middle class and elites came out into the streets once again, mostly in Bangkok. As they had in 2005–06, they called for the prime minister to be removed, charging Yingluck with corruption. This time, some of the demonstrators seemed fully, and openly, to accept an end to democracy, seeing it as the only way to reduce the electoral power of working-class voters (who comprise the majority of the electorate) and to prevent more populist economic policies from being enacted. In 2005–06, only some demonstrators had disdained democracy, and those who wanted a coup or royal intervention usually said such a measure would be only a temporary reset before a return to democracy. Now, however, some protestors called for a return to absolute monarchy or a long-term military government. When the Yingluck government tried to hold a snap election to shore up its legitimacy, demonstrators blocked voting booths and prevented people from casting ballots.

In May 2014, a junta seized power. Determined not to repeat the “soft coup” of 2006, it quickly passed an extreme new constitution that empowered unelected senators, judges, and bureaucrats, and weakened the lower house. The junta hounded critics. It lavished funds on the army and oversaw the writing of a plan in which the military would guide the country for decades to come.

Currently, the kingdom seems, at least on the surface, relatively calm. Although there have been small-scale demonstrations in recent months, the heightened repression and Thais’ weariness of political conflict have prevented any major protests. Both Thaksin and Yingluck now live in exile. Other associates of Thaksin have charges pending against them.

Some Thai elites are satisfied with the situation, convinced that the military, supported by the monarchy, has eradicated the leadership of the Thaksinite party. They believe that governance by the army and its allies in the unelected senate and the bureaucracy is the only way to protect a degree of the rule of law—and, of course, of elites’ power—even if real democracy is never restored. The army, and its supporters among some Bangkok elites, seems to believe it can put off holding elections, which it has already delayed multiple times, until 2019 or later. In the meantime, it will likely form a military-backed party, in hopes of maneuvering that party to control a placid lower house. If that strategy succeeds, a military party, the military, the monarchy, and unelected allies would run the country together. And what was once a real democracy will have turned into a true oligarchy.

Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.