FIRST PERSON
Can Thailand Avoid Another Coup?

A bitter struggle for control of the government is compounded by uncertainty over the future of the monarchy.

By Lewis M. Simons

An anti-government demonstrator waves the Thai flag

Kerek Wongsa, Reuters

An anti-government demonstrator waves the Thai flag near Democracy Monument in central Bangkok in November 2013, as thousands protest possible amnesty for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile in Dubai.

Early in February, voters in Thailand will go to the polls to decide if the current, popularly elected government will remain in power.

Already there’s trouble. The leading opposition party has threatened to boycott the voting. Election-related violence is just a spark away. And a military coup is always at the top of the menu in Thailand.

The current round of problems started in December 2013, when demonstrators took to the streets of Bangkok—vowing to topple the democratically elected government and replace it with a vaguely defined appointed body.

The police and armed forces have remained in check, not wanting to escalate the situation. Even so, at least eight people have been killed and several hundred injured.

On December 5, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday, the protests abruptly, but temporarily, stopped. All Thais, it was evident, instinctively recognized that violent demonstrations were absolutely off-limits for the moment: too disrespectful.

Questions about who will succeed King Bhumibol—who is sick, and after 67 years on the throne, the only monarch most have ever known—adds a layer of complexity to the ongoing political struggle and the country’s worrisome outlook. His designated heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is widely disliked.

To better understand Thailand’s persistent problems, before the latest round of struggles erupted in Bangkok I traveled throughout the country and met with scores of people.

Jerome N. Cookson, NGM Staff; Shelley Sperry

Source: Thailand Development Research Institute

Thailand poverty map

Jerome N. Cookson, NGM Staff; Shelley Sperry

Source: Thailand Development Research Institute

Some rarely talk to journalists. Among them were the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who is often accused of running the government from self-exile in Dubai; his glamorous sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is the current prime minister and his public face; and the princess who could become Thailand's first female ruler.

I also spent time in the deep south, where Malay Muslim separatists are waging a deadly, protracted war against the Buddhist-dominated government and army.

But first I visited the heartland of the political revolution, an agricultural breadbasket known as Isan, in the northeast.

Farmers plant rice near Mae Sariang, Thailand

David Longstreath, AP Photo

Farmers plant rice near Mae Sariang, in the north. Exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra organized a populist movement. In 2010 adherents, known as red shirts, battled royalist yellow shirts as well as the Thai army in the streets of Bangkok.

Life in a Red-Shirt Village

A sweet scent reached me before I entered the Sam Phrao village gate. Clouds of steam from an iron pot hanging over a crackling fire in the small central square perfumed the sweltering air. Along with two dozen or so other women and a few old men, Kullakarn Thammawat (a pseudonym for her protection) was preparing khao tom mad: black beans and banana mixed with sticky rice, heated in coconut milk, then rolled and steamed in banana leaves. They would pack the treats in baskets and carry them up to the remote mountain monastery where Buddhist monks stay for retreat, as a token of thanks for a good rice harvest and of respect for their ancestors.

The women and elders straddled long benches, assembly-line style, on one side of the outdoor wood fire. In this postharvest season many of the village's men were in Bangkok or overseas, in places like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Taiwan, working on construction projects. A number of young women had gone to Thailand's cities to work in factories or in prostitution.

Even before the khao tom mad filled my senses, I noticed a banner over the village gate proclaiming Sam Phrao a “red-shirt village.” This was the first hint that life here had changed dramatically from what it had been only 15 or so years before. Then, nearly everyone wore loose, square-cut indigo cotton shirts, the unofficial uniform of the Thai peasant.

red-shirt protesters seized control of upscale malls in central Bangkok

Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

In 2010 red-shirt protesters seized control of upscale malls in central Bangkok during anti-government demonstrations that turned violent.

The Multibillionaire Populist

Sam Phrao’s 5,000 residents dress in red shirts to express their allegiance to Thaksin Shinawatra, the two-time prime minister and telecommunications industry multibillionaire who was overthrown by the army in 2006 in a bloodless coup d'état.

According to Arnon Sannan, of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, there are three million people in 9,000 red-shirt villages in north and northeast Thailand.

Villagers in the impoverished northeast once used water buffalo to plow their paddies and were largely cut off from the rest of the country. But Kullakarn delightedly showed me tractors, pickup trucks, motor scooters, cell phones, and Internet access—often paid for with low-cost loans instituted by the Thaksin government.

For the first time villagers had affordable medical care and sufficient teachers for their schools. Picture-postcard scenes of half-naked little boys grinning from the broad backs of family buffalo had given way to scenes of kids idling beneath shady trees tapping out text messages.

“By courting the masses and then delivering on his promises, Thaksin won the kind of adoration once reserved solely for the demigodly King Bhumibol.”

Kullakarn and her neighbors gave Thaksin full credit. And indeed, progress for the downtrodden had been a crucial source of his power. Thaksin had the wit to recognize that once the masses had better prospects, he could inspire them to hitch their wagon to his rising star. By courting them and then delivering on his promises, Thaksin won the kind of adoration once reserved solely for the demigodly King Bhumibol.

Kullakarn and I strolled Sam Phrao’s two dusty roads, pausing to greet neighbors puttering in vegetable gardens and to pat their dogs. Houses, scattered at odd angles, were jerry-built of sun-bleached raw wood, brightened with yellow and red splashes of potted cannas and hibiscuses. We paused beneath a thatched shelter and sat at a narrow wooden table. Kullakarn, who is slim with deeply sunburned, sinewy arms, was wearing a dark sarong, flip-flops, and, of course, a red T-shirt. Children brought plastic plates of khao tom mad. Lazy black flies hovered.

Our conversation turned to Thaksin, the descendant of a shrewd Chinese immigrant who built a fortune in varied business ventures. Kullakarn said she had lived most of her 42 years taking little interest in politics, but that changed after Thaksin came to power in 2001. “As a farmer, I benefited from his policies, including getting a better price for my rice,” she said. “Most Thais voted for him, not once but twice. When the army overthrew him, I realized that something was wrong.”

The majority backed Thaksin, but that majority did not include the army or the wealthy and powerful aristocratic and business elites, who buzz around the royal family the way the flies circled our sweets. In 2003 Thaksin tried to curb the rampant methamphetamine trade by ordering a three-month crackdown. At least 2,800 people died, more than half with no link to drugs. Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” as it was called, didn’t eliminate the trade, but it did boost his popularity, alarming his opponents. They saw Thaksin as a threat to the king and to their own power. They foresaw themselves losing a class war.

Eliza R. Scidmore, National Geographic

A young Siamese prince in the early 20th century displays traditional, full court regalia. Plays and films like Anna and the King of Siam popularized Thai royalty among Westerners. In 1932 Thailand changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

In 2006 mobs from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, infuriated with Thaksin and his family for their tax-free sale of a telecom company to Singapore and for his call for new elections, paralyzed Bangkok with massive street protests. Outfitted in shirts of yellow, the royal house’s color, they demanded Thaksin’s removal. They accused him of a raft of offenses, including corruption, authoritarianism, tax evasion, and most abhorrent, lèse-majesté—insulting the monarchy. Then the army, closely allied with the monarchy, took matters into its own hands: While Thaksin was in New York at the UN, he was toppled.

For the next five years Thailand limped along behind a succession of governments. In July 2011 the party of Thaksin’s surrogate, his glamorous sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won the election, and in August she was chosen as prime minister. Thaksin called her his “clone,” funding and promoting her from abroad.

A Different Kind of Coup

Thailand is no stranger to coups, with about 20 in the 20th century alone. But the one in 2006 focused new public attention on the relationships among the monarchy, government, and army—the three institutions of power in Thailand.

Ordinary Thais, who wanted a greater say in government, began organizing the red-shirt movement. In the spring of 2010 disaffected red shirts seized the streets of Bangkok and demanded elections. The prime minister ordered the army into the streets. Peaceful protests turned into bombings, arson, and gunfire in the traffic-choked streets and glittering shopping palazzi of the city, as red-shirted Thaksin backers carrying sticks and bottles of gasoline went to war against troops armed with M16 rifles and armored personnel carriers.

One of the many Thais killed and wounded during street warfare in 2010

Jerry Lampen, Reuters

One of the many Thais killed and wounded during street warfare in 2010 between anti-government red-shirt protesters and well-armed soldiers is carried from the scene. Some red shirts complained afterward that King Bhumibol could have halted the violence but instead did nothing.

Kullakarn and her neighbors pooled their money, hired a bus, and drove to Bangkok to show solidarity. For most, it was their first visit. They were dazzled by Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys, French and Italian fashions, and Swiss watches and jewelry costing more than their houses and land. And they were horrified by the army’s cruelty toward fellow Thais, fellow Buddhists. By May 20, more than 90 people, mostly civilians, were dead and about 2,000 wounded. Some of the city’s most extravagant buildings were smoldering ashes.

“A moviegoer who fails to stand for the royal anthem can end up behind bars for 3 to 15 years.”

Hands Off the King

Most stunning to Kullakarn was what did not happen. The king was nowhere to be seen, his voice unheard. “If you ask if we love the king, yes, we do,” Kullakarn told me. “But today there is some distance between the king and his people—us. He was the only one who could have stopped the crackdown, but he didn’t say anything.” She said people want to know why the king treats yellow shirts and red shirts differently, why he didn’t help. “We want to ask the king questions but can’t, because lèse-majesté stops us from having direct dialogue with the palace. We’re afraid of it.”

privileged young couple formally approach royalty for marraige

John Everingham, National Geographic

In profound deference, this privileged young couple formally approached King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit 34 years ago to be wed.

A relic of imperial Rome by way of 19th-century Europe, the lèse-majesté law, designed to defend a ruler's dignity, has faded into obscurity under nearly every modern monarchy. But in Thailand it is applied more than ever. More than a thousand charges have been made since 2005. Most insidiously, charges are commonly brought by one citizen against another, instilling widespread fear. A moviegoer who fails to stand for the royal anthem can end up behind bars for 3 to 15 years.

But the lèse-majesté law appears to be backfiring. Once sacrosanct, the royal family is now subjected to online insults and accusations.

Scorn in a Yellow-Shirt Café

What are the concerns, the fears, and the worries of the yellow shirts, the movers and shakers of Thailand’s strong economy?

Over lattes one morning I put this question to 39-year-old Wilawan Pornanunchok, the owner of a string of badminton courts, and Chumseri Sunthrorowet (not her real name). We were relaxing on the patio of Coffee Alley, a snack shop in Bangkok's touristy Sukhumvit area.

Describing herself as an “ardent yellow shirt,” Wilawan, who was wearing a white-and-gold polo with a Mercedes-Benz logo, unburdened herself: “Red shirts are manual laborers. They’re poorly educated; they’re brainwashed by local radio; they don’t have access to truth, only Thaksin’s propaganda.”

Thaksin, Chumseri chimed in, tries “to influence people to put values more on money, increasing selfishness and materialism. This is not good for society.” Nodding in agreement, Wilawan said, “It leads them to violence, to breaking the law, and to lèse-majesté.”

Chumseri conceded that some Thais, particularly leftist intellectuals, had been criticizing the royal family throughout Bhumibol’s 67 years on the throne. “But it was never organized,” she said. “Now everyone knows Thaksin wants all the power for himself, so his very existence encourages lèse-majesté.”

Behind her interpretation lurked a grudging admiration for Thaksin’s ability to rouse the sleeping giant that is the red shirts. But nearer the surface burned fury that Thaksin had exposed a myth: that Thailand was free of class divisions. The rich had sought to perpetuate this notion by keeping those at the bottom ignorant of what life was like at the top. Now they have come to realize that the poor are much more politically aware than they gave them credit for.

The remarks of the two women were telling because they were not from the over-the-top, super-rich class—those commonly linked to the yellow shirt movement. Rather, they represented the merely well-off, the self-made, the college educated, the ambitious; the hip consumers who were able to satisfy their wants, not just their needs; those who vacationed abroad and dined in Bangkok’s excellent Western restaurants.

Big Brother, Dutiful Sister

I met Thaksin Shinawatra for breakfast one morning at a shopping mall in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, where he lives in luxurious but frustrated self-exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence stemming from his 2008 conviction for corruption and an arrest warrant for “terrorism” in connection with the 2010 protests.

“Politics,” he said between sips of a green health drink, “is about allocation of limited resources for the benefit of the majority. When the majority is poor, that’s where the majority of resources should go. A leader must listen to the voice of the people.”

Thaksin said that he was working to return to Thailand a free man, which would require the help of his sister’s administration.

“We speak frequently,” Prime Minister Yingluck acknowledged when I interviewed her in a huge reception room at Bangkok’s Italianate-style Government House. “But if he were to ask me to bring him home, I’d have to say no. I cannot do anything just for one person—not even my big brother.”

Yingluck Shinawatra, campaigning in 2011

Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

Yingluck Shinawatra, campaigning in 2011, was swept into office as prime minister. Some claim she is a surrogate for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. The army toppled him in 2006 in a coup that infuriated his supporters, mainly rural people from north and northeastern Thailand.

Muslims Seek Independence

The prime minister and her government are consumed by the red-yellow struggle. Like previous governments, they seldom look far south of Bangkok, where a Malay Muslim-Thai conflict has been going on for decades, the violence flaring with new intensity since 2004.

“Yaena recounted years of fruitless effort to win justice for her murdered husband and a son who narrowly escaped death.”

During the 11 days I spent in the deep south, only one day passed without police reporting that someone had been blown up, burned alive, beheaded, shot, or stabbed. Common folk in the north are largely oblivious too. Only when a young Buddhist soldier is killed in the south does the trouble register with villagers like Kullakarn, and then only momentarily. Yet it was Thaksin who, by unleashing the military, played a key role in reigniting the long-smoldering fight for Malay independence.

In the southern village of Cha Ro, within walking distance of a tiny Malaysian border crossing, it occurred to me that the Malay fighters shared with the red shirts of Isan justifiable bitterness over unfair treatment at the hands of the ruling elite. They were, ironically, natural allies.

I spoke in Cha Ro with Yaena Salaemae, a Muslim widow who lives with her five children, their spouses, and nine grandchildren. She could have been Kullakarn’s sister. Seated on a thin straw mat in the single, ground-floor room of her pink, concrete-block house, Yaena recounted years of fruitless effort to win justice for her murdered husband and a son who narrowly escaped death, only to be jailed, interrogated, and tried. Compactly built at 52, Yaena was dressed in a blue plaid sarong; a loose, pale green polo shirt; and a pink head scarf. As we spoke, one of her granddaughters slept curled against her.

The Town No Muslim Forgets

Cha Ro is a settlement of 70 households, all but two Muslim. The village dozes outside the town of Tak Bai. Soldiers in jungle camouflage, on foot and motorcycle, patrol everywhere.

To the 1.4 million ethnic Malay Muslims who make up about 80 percent of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, Tak Bai is synonymous with military atrocity. It is the rallying cry for the insurrection that dominates their lives.

Horror erupted there on October 25, 2004. More than 1,500 Malay Muslims were protesting outside the riverfront police station, noisily demanding the release of a handful of suspected accomplices of Malay insurgents. Some 1,600 riot police and troops enveloped the crowd, killing seven demonstrators and restraining the rest, binding their hands behind their backs. Then they piled the men—facedown, like logs, four and five deep—in open-back military trucks.

Thai Muslims of Malay descent demonstrating peacefully

STR/AFP/Getty

On October 25, 2004, more than 1,500 Thai Muslims of Malay descent demonstrating peacefully in the southern town of Tak Bai were arrested. Many were forced to strip to the waist and lie on the ground, then were stacked like cordwood on army trucks, where 78 suffocated to death. Outrage over the Tak Bai massacre elevated the separatist warfare to unprecedented levels.

Shrieking in terror, Yaena saw her 20-year-old son, Mohammed Maruwasi, a college student at the time, tossed onto one of the heaps.

Soldiers then drove the convoy of 28 vehicles to the Ingkayuth army base, where the men were dumped. Normally a two-hour journey, it took some trucks five hours; 78 of the stacked men died of asphyxiation under the scorching sun.

Mohammed later testified in court, where he and other protesters were being tried for “destroying government property,” that the drivers made frequent long stops. When the prostrate men and boys cried out for water, soldiers pounded them with rifle butts and stomped them with black leather boots.

As outrage spread, then Prime Minister Thaksin went on the air and excused the murders, assuring a place for himself as a monster in southern history. Although red shirts in the northeast cheer Thaksin as their liberator, southern Malays accuse him of fomenting trouble in a region that has chafed for more than a century under Thai rule.

Getting Away With Murder

The cruelty unleashed a fierce determination in Yaena. Because she speaks both Thai and Malay, she became the interpreter and go-between for her son and 57 other protesters on trial in the Narathiwat Provincial Court. The case was dropped in 2006.

A separate postmortem inquest had begun in 2005 and dragged on for four years. During that time Yaena often traveled to and from sessions in the provincial courts of Songkhla and Pattani. On May 29, 2009, the Songkhla inquest ruled that the 78 detainees had died from suffocation but that military personnel weren’t to blame because they had been carrying out their duties.

“I was furious,” Yaena told me. “We couldn’t understand why they ruled that way. We all felt the government was trying to avoid any responsibility."

For Yaena, Tak Bai was only one piece of the nightmare. On October 10, 2007, her husband, Mayusoh Mahlong, was parking his motor scooter outside a shop when someone sprayed him with machine-gun fire from a pickup. Eyewitnesses reported to the police the license plate of the killer’s green Mitsubishi Proton.

“The police kept telling me they had no clues,” Yaena said. “But it happened in broad daylight. So I’ve given up."

The insurgents too are fighting “for justice,” she told me. “But while I agree with their cause and I want what they want, I disagree with their use of violence.”

Muslim Insurgents Defend Brutal Tactics

One moonless night, with a monsoon deluge noisily spattering the window behind heavy, tightly drawn brown curtains, the lights suddenly flashed off, pitching my hotel room into thick, humid blackness.

I could no longer see the four Muslim insurgents I was interviewing, two women and two men. I told them about Abdeu-Ayee Deurabu, 48, a father and husband, a police sergeant and a Muslim, whom I had just met. While driving his wife home, he had been shot through his left armpit by a motorcyclist, also a Muslim. Now he was a paraplegic.

What, I asked, motivated the insurgents to such brutality?

“This is a battle between the authority and the people,” one of the women responded in Malay. “We are fighting for our independence. We would not know if your police officer was a Muslim. When he wears that uniform, he is the authority, and he is ready to wage war against us.”

She gave her name as Waliyah, assuring me it was not her real name, and her age as 28. Her husband had been killed two months earlier in a shoot-out with soldiers. He had been a member of the Pattani Malay National Revolutionary Front, known today as BRN-Coordinate. He died a shahid, a martyr, at 38, she said in a tightly controlled whisper.

The lights sputtered back on. Waliyah was wearing a flowing, pink garment that enveloped her from neck to toe, a white scarf that covered her hair and most of her face, and white cotton gloves.

To her left, cross-legged on the bed, perched a swarthy man with a salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a crocheted, white skullcap. The name he gave was Abu (Arabic for “father of”) Umar, and he was 50. “I have been fighting for 30 years,” Abu Umar said in a smoker’s voice. “Since the ’80s, our role shifted to politics and diplomacy. We also have active armed groups,” he said, because the other side cannot be trusted.

Kraisak Choonhavan is on the other side. He’s a very rich, very powerful landowner and a member of parliament from the royalist Democrat Party; his father was once prime minister.

Kraisak, however, is sympathetic to the southern Muslims. He readily acknowledged that his own party had done nothing to resolve the underlying causes of the insurgency: no justice for Muslims in the courts, lack of economic opportunity, refusal to allow use of the Malay language in regional government offices and schools, refusal to hire more Muslim bureaucrats and police. “The Thai state still harbors a barbaric side, like all armed states,” he said.

A Muslim woman and her son walk past armed troops

Muhammad Sabri, AFP/Getty Images

A Muslim woman and her son walk past armed troops at a market in Yala, in southern Thailand. Since an upsurge of violence in the south in January 2004, almost 6,000 people have been killed and more than 10,000 injured in the conflict between Malay Muslim separatists and the state.

Brutal Crackdown

That barbarism had been on display when I watched troops crush students demonstrating at Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University on October 6, 1976. They were protesting the king’s welcoming back to Thailand of a military dictator exiled three years before by a student uprising. Soldiers fired point-blank into the throng of terrified students, then stripped the survivors, male and female, to the waist and forced them to crawl on their bellies to waiting trucks. According to officials, 46 were killed. I thought that figure was low. Many more were beaten and mutilated.

As Paul Handley contends in his unauthorized biography The King Never Smiles, King Bhumibol—then 48, in full vigor and at the height of his glory—quietly supported the crackdown, paving the way for a military coup that ushered in an extreme right-wing government.

The Thammasat massacre forever marked a generation of Thais. Idealistic leftist students fled into the mountains of Isan to join Thailand’s Communist Party. They influenced and were influenced by the peasants among whom they found refuge.

It was hardly coincidental that more than 30 years later many in the crowds battling the army in the streets of Bangkok were middle-aged and wore red shirts.

“Sirindhorn is thought of as the sole member of the royal family above reproach.”

Thailand’s Angel

In December 2011, the king’s daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, granted me an interview in her office in the heart of Bangkok’s immense royal compound. The princess told me that her father was “frail, so we must be careful with him.”

Sirindhorn appeared to be simplicity itself: pale dress and low-heeled shoes; square, ruddy face untouched by makeup; and bluntly cut, graying hair pinned behind her ears. She is now 58.

She is thought of throughout the country as the sole member of the royal family above reproach. Many call her “angel.” If the king chooses Sirindhorn instead of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, she’ll become Thailand's first ever female ruler. Sirindhorn was noncommittal about the question of succession.

Why, I asked, at this late stage in the king’s highly regarded reign, were so many ordinary Thais speaking out against him—something that rarely used to happen or at least was kept from the public?

“People have more and more ideas,” she replied. “The social media have made these ideas more widespread. But I don’t think we should care much about it. The Buddha taught that you shouldn’t think it's a big deal if anyone says bad things.”

I was struck by something else Princess Sirindhorn said: “I don’t think it is possible to force people to love you.”

The future of Thailand may hang on that thought.

The royal family join the ailing king on his 85th birthday

Wason Wanichakorn, AP Images

Members of the royal family join the ailing king on his 85th birthday, December 5, 2012. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (bowing) is the designated heir to the throne but is widely disliked. Many Thais would prefer that his sister, the popular Princess Sirindhorn (far right), accede to the throne.

Editor’s note: Lewis M. Simons has covered Asia extensively from the Vietnam War to the present. Based in Thailand from 1975 to 1978, he returns often on reporting assignments. A former correspondent for the AP, Washington Post, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, his articles appear in National Geographic, USA Today, New York Times, Smithsonian, and several online outlets. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles exposing the corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines, he was twice more a finalist and has won numerous other journalism awards. His books include The Next Front and Worth Dying For. He lives in Washington, D.C., and travels frequently throughout Asia.

Follow Lewis M. Simons on Twitter and Facebook.

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