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  • Thailand's Political CrisisWhich Color Is Conservative?
  • Seth Kane (bio)

Thailand's political crisis is often portrayed in the western media as a conflict between conservative forces associated with the traditional elite and a pro-democracy movement with a populist agenda. However, this picture is misleading in that both movements are comprised of unlikely interest group coalitions and ideological mishmashes that befuddle simple classification along conservative-liberal lines.

Four Years of Political Chaos

Thailand's political crisis has raged since February 2006, when a new protest movement, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or "Yellow Shirts," took to the streets. Their goal was to depose Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, elected in 2001 and reelected in 2005 with substantial parliamentary majorities. Continuous protests culminated in the December 2006 military coup after which the TRT was dissolved and Thaksin went into exile. Following a year of military rule and the promulgation of a new, more conservative constitution, fresh elections were held and the Thaksin backed party, reformulated as the People's Power Party (PPP), won for a third time. The PAD reactivated the protests and took over the international airport for eight days until a court ruling dissolved the PPP. The Democrats, the PAD backed main opposition party in parliament, were able to cobble together a fragile coalition government made up of defecting former Thaksin allies. Since Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took power in December 2008, Thaksin's supporters, the "Red Shirts," have taken to the streets to oppose what they claim is an undemocratic, illegitimate, and military backed government.

Thaksin's Ideological Mishmash

In one sense, the characterization of Thaksin as a pro-democracy populist is accurate. He delivered practically free health care to everyone, gave $25,000 to every village as microloan seed money along with other generous grants, developed an ambitious "one district, one product" project to upgrade traditional [End Page 105] crafts for national and international marketing, and instituted a four year debt moratorium for farmers. For this, the rural poor in Thailand's central, north, and northeastern regions adore him. He was elected twice with large majorities, ousted by a military coup, and has rallied ever since in the name of democracy. However, other aspects of his record call into question his pro-democracy credentials and include policy orientations that are unusual for a populist leader.

From a macroeconomic and trade perspective, he is an enthusiastic neo-liberal. He pushed through mega-infrastructure projects, aggressively pursued free-trade agreements, and moved to privatize state enterprises. In so doing he was a favorite of Bangkok entrepreneurial elites connected to the global economy through exports, capital investment, and technology businesses.

His hard-line security stance, aggressive foreign policy, and unwavering pro-democracy rhetoric is perhaps best captured, at least in the American context, as neo-conservative in nature. Thaksin prosecuted a "war on drugs" that resulted in 2,500 fatalities in the space of three months and aggressively sought a political re-alignment in the three southern provinces reigniting a bloody insurgency. In terms of foreign policy he supported President Bush by sending a mission to Iraq against the opinion of the foreign policy establishment. While rhetorically a champion of democracy, he intimidated the media and civil society, aggressively expanded executive powers, and spent lavishly on vote buying.

The Anti-Thaksin Movement's Many Faces

The characterization of the PAD, the anti-Thaksin umbrella group, as an elite conservative movement is true to an extent. It had the backing of much of Thailand's traditional ruling class and those within institutions that have habitually called the political shots; namely the monarchy, military and government bureaucracy. These elites opposed Thaksin's encroachment on their power and resources, which the PAD framed as an assault on the revered monarchy. This claim rested on Thaksin's forceful expansion of executive power and his dismissive attitude towards key members of the Privy Council; particularly former Prime Minister General Prem Thinsulanonda, one of Thailand's most venerated statesmen. Nonetheless, the PAD was actually a diverse coalition of groups with different agendas and grievances.

Bangkok's middle class saw Thaksin as a political and economic...