Divided Kingdom

Years of political turmoil led to a takeover by the army. What are the roots of the unrest?

This story appears in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The allure of money can loosen the grip of tradition, and it was this force that began shaking Thailand’s old social order some three decades ago. During the economic boom that began in the 1980s, wealth poured into the country at such a pace that per capita income tripled within one generation. Bangkok, the nation’s capital, was transformed into a high-rise metropolis where shopping malls competed for space with Buddhist temples. Country people flocked to the big city for jobs, pulling apart traditional family structures and discovering new ways of seeing the world.

About 10 percent of Thailand’s population of 67 million now lives in Bangkok, a figure that rises when the several million migrant workers from rural areas are counted. With paved roads, electricity, motorbikes, and television sets, Thailand’s villagers have become some of the most affluent poor people in the world, acquiring the academic label “middle-income peasants.”

This rise in well-being has also brought dissatisfaction with the glaring gulfs between rich and poor. As a result Thai society has been undergoing a historic realignment in which the poorer classes, encouraged by ambitious politicians, have been seeking their share of the prosperity and clout that have always been beyond their reach. An alliance of Thailand’s old political institutions—with the palace, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military at their core—has been pushing back, defending the privileges of a hierarchical system that governs both public and private life.

These dynamics came to a dramatic head on May 22, when the military seized power in a coup following seven months of increasing tension. Officials imposed a nighttime curfew and severely restricted free speech and the press. Leaders of the ousted government were seized or went into hiding. Journalists, politicians, and outspoken academics were ordered to surrender.

Among those arrested was Chaturon Chaisang, the ousted education minister. “If anyone thinks that the coup will stop all the conflict and the turmoil, or violence, they would be wrong,” he said, before being led away by armed soldiers.

As I write this, just days after the coup, it is impossible to predict where Thailand is heading or even how the situation will stand when this magazine goes to press.

“The underlying forces are ultimately in favor of the demands for distribution of wealth and power,” said Chris Baker, a British historian based in Thailand. “But it will only come gradually, and not in straight lines.”

The rising underclass forms by far the largest political bloc. Its candidates have won every nationwide election since 2001, only to be wrenched from power either by coup or by highly politicized court rulings. A new mood of animosity and intolerance is infecting a culture in which confrontations are typically wished away by indirection, soft words, and that all-purpose Thai smile.

During the first months of this year, in a campaign called Shut Down Bangkok, tens of thousands of protesters paralyzed parts of the city, blocking intersections and filling the air with the earsplitting screech of whistles. It was an extraordinary spectacle of what were, in effect, antidemocracy protests. In the run-up to national elections on February 2, these protesters kept candidates from registering and prevented the delivery of ballot boxes. On election day they physically blocked polling stations, tussling with people who tried to breach their barricades to vote. So many polling stations were forced to close that the Constitutional Court controversially annulled the vote, leaving the country in a dangerous and acrimonious limbo.

The coup came after Yingluck Shinawatra, the country’s democratically elected prime minister, was forced from office by the same Constitutional Court, which found her guilty of abuse of power. It followed months of rumors of military action in a country whose democratic system has been battered by some 20 military coups or attempted coups since 1932, the year Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

Most baldly put, Thailand’s disenfranchised citizens, commonly known as the “red shirts,” want elections because they know they will win. The other side, which initially coalesced as the “yellow shirts,” has sought to change the electoral system because it knows it does not have the votes to hold on to power.

The anti-election movement insists that it is not antidemocratic, just that it has a different definition of democracy. “You can’t say that American or British is the only strategy for democracy,” Danuch Tanterdtid, the yellow-shirt owner of a foreign language and computer school told me. “Democracy is a culture and a way of thinking. In Thailand we had the king before we had democracy. It takes time to adjust.”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has long occupied a place at the core of Thailand’s sense of identity and nationhood. Now 86, he has been on the throne since 1946, longer than most Thais have been alive. For many it is impossible to imagine their nation without him. King Bhumibol has used his moral authority to defuse serious crises in the past, and many Thais hoped he would act again as the current confrontations grew. But in recent years the ailing king has faded from the scene, a silent presence amid the upheavals. A constitutional monarch, the king has no direct political power, but he can wield considerable influence. It’s unlikely that any heir can inherit the veneration and moral stature that have built up around King Bhumibol.

At the same time, under the forces of globalization and modernity, Thailand has been growing away from the structured world represented by the monarchy. Though nearly 95 percent of Thais identify themselves as Buddhist, form has taken precedence over faith for many, and religion is losing its central place in their lives. The monkhood has been tainted by scandals and consumerism. Fewer young men are shaving their heads and entering the monkhood for a period of weeks or months—once a common rite of passage.

The dominant political figure in Thailand today is a man who is not even in the country. Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a coup in 2006 while traveling abroad but continues to command the biggest electoral constituency in the country. The most recent election, in 2011, was won by his youngest sister, Yingluck, whom he promoted unashamedly as his “clone.” The campaign to shut down Bangkok followed an attempt by her government to pass an amnesty bill with a last-minute provision that would have freed Thaksin from a conviction for corruption and allowed him to return home.

It was the genius of Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire from outside the entrenched oligarchies, to recognize the potential influence of the country’s underrepresented underclass, wooing them and winning their fealty with policies like low-cost health care and financial support. A new electoral majority rose to flex its power and threaten the primacy of the Bangkok-based elite. After winning the national election in 2001, Thaksin was reelected with a huge majority in 2005.

But despite his democratic election, Thaksin was no democrat, expanding his power by neutering independent agencies that were intended to check executive power, squeezing press freedoms, and using his office to enrich himself.

In the take-no-prisoners manner that had entranced some Thais, he reanimated a long-simmering Malay Muslim insurgency in the southernmost provinces with harsh, militarized policies that included massacres of civilians. In the past decade some 6,000 people have been killed in a low-intensity war of assassinations, ambushes, and bombings that draw only passing attention in distant, largely Buddhist Bangkok.

The coup in 2006 failed to erase Thaksin’s influence, and when the generals handed power back to the people in an election, his party won again. As the courts and military acted to oust one pro-Thaksin government after another, Thailand fell into a pattern of alternating, sporadically violent yellow- and red-shirt protests.

In 2010 tens of thousands of red shirts took over the core of Bangkok’s central shopping district for two months. “What brought me out there was a lack of equality and fairness,” a farmer from the northeast told me. “We don’t have democracy, and we know we are going to have to fight for it. Nobody is going to give it to us.” After attempts at negotiation failed, the military moved in and broke up the protest in days of gunfire, mayhem, and arson. More than 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed. There have been more deaths since then, as violence has permeated the political struggle.

Neither side is willing to concede defeat, and the words “separatism” and “civil war” can be heard from people who offer extreme scenarios. A backlash against the latest coup began soon after the generals seized power. Given Thailand’s recent electoral history, the chance of a fair vote in which the losers accept defeat appears to be a long shot. The divisions are so deep, and the opposing sides so entrenched, that no scenario seems likely to bring calm anytime soon.