Thailand sits at edge of political storm

Thailand sits at edge of political storm

With Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ousting at the hands of the Thai Supreme Court on May 7th, Thailand’s political paralysis is set to restart. The anti-government Yellow Shirts have welcomed the move, but Shinawatra’s zealous Red Shirt supporters have flocked to Bangkok. More ominously, the health of King Bhumibol (Rama IX) continues to decline, presenting a succession crisis before current political turmoil is resolved. The king’s death is sure to reopen a number of fault lines, creating a veritable perfect storm for Thais and international investors alike.

Thailand has been deeply split since the ouster and exile of billionaire PM Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Thaksin’s brand of populism earned him immense support in the country’s agrarian north, much to the ire of the Bangkok elite and middle-class, who decry the Shinawatras as crony capitalists and dictators. His sister Yingluck mobilized this support in the 2011 elections, becoming Thailand’s first female prime minister.

Yingluck’s attempt to pass an amnesty law for Thaksin in November 2013 sparked the current bout of instability, as the opposition contends that she is little more than her brother’s puppet. After months of demonstrations, Yingluck and nine of her cabinet members were dismissed by the Thai Supreme Court after being found guilty of abusing her office.

Largely absent from the political drama is King Bhumibol (Rama IX), who has served as Thailand’s deus ex machina in times of national duress. Veneration for the king runs deep in Thailand, both by the Thai public at large and as a semi-sacred figure in the country’s Buddhist hierarchy. Since ascending the throne in 1946, Bhumibol has waded into the kingdom’s toxic politics many times to pull the country back from the edge.

Now 86 and in poor health, the king has retreated from the public eye, leaving many to privately speculate on the inevitable succession crisis. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure, holding neither the stature nor the respect of his father. Many doubt his ability to hold the Kingdom together as his father has for 64 years.

Further complicating the succession issue is lese majestere, the law preventing any criticism of the royal family, which is invoked liberally to stamp out any public discussion of the royal family in general. At a time when Thai society needs to have an open discussion on the post-Bhumibol life, public discourse on the biggest wildcard of Thailand’s political fault-lines is muted and pushed out of mind.

The king’s death and subsequent succession crisis will reignite a host of other issues across the country. The Islamist insurgency in Southern Thailand – quiet in recent years – could be given new life as opportunistic militants would seek to exploit Bangkok’s preoccupation with the royal secession. The power vacuum would also create fertile grounds for Thailand’s coup-happy military, and could pave the way for a long-dreaded civil war.

The Thai economy is already feeling the heat: Thai stocks have tumbled, consumer confidence has dropped to a 13-year low, and analysts warn that GDP growth forecasts will be slashed. While day-to-day life in Thailand is typically unaffected by the chronic political instability, a full-fledged armed conflict would quickly put an end to this.

Thailand’s hugely lucrative rice export industry would be directly threatened. The Kingdom is the world’s top rice producer, and rice subsidies have been a hallmark of Yingluck Shinawatra’s tenure as Prime Minister. The country’s chief rice-producing regions in the centre and the north are Red Shirt strongholds, meaning strife is likely to occur there should the country fall into conflict. Global rice prices would spike, which, as events in 2007-08 showed, could trigger food riots in neighbouring countries where rice is also a staple. This could directly affect regime stability in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Thailand’s other cash cow – tourism – would also be affected, after slipping through so many past crises unscathed.

Thailand is sitting on a precipice. A host of unresolved issues – political gridlock, class divide, and the insurgency in the deep south – have created conditions that could lead the country into civil war. The king’s death could be the spark to set it alight.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel was previously a Program Editor and Asia-Pacific Analyst at the NATO Council of Canada, the Canadian representative at the Atlantic Treaty Association. Daniel is an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.