For as long as I can remember Thailand has a been a patch of tranquility in the turbulent waters of South East Asia. In the Vietnam war the country was a resort for American GI’s who took a break from the fighting on its placid beaches. During the era of the Khmer Rouge killing spree Thailand took in refugees and despite sharing a border with Burma it has never visited totalitarianism on its own people. Thai people are surprisingly un-political in conversation, rarely expressing dissent from the party line. Indeed, most Thais hold unbridled respect for the King and wear yellow and blue shirts in his honor every week. His pictures line the highways as a symbol of unbridled affinity.
Which is precisely why the violent political struggle that is engulfing the capital city of Bangkok this month seems so out of character.It is hard to believe that any society can be politically tranquil. What seemed to be a veil of peace and non-confrontation was a thin veil for burning resentment against the status quo. In 2001 there was a similar situation in Nepal where the Royal family was almost universally adored. At the time a disparaging remark about him to an ordinary could start a fight. Then in 2001 a royal heir slaughtered the rest of the Royal family and the country descended into chaos. For centuries the king had been able to quell distrust between the impoverished rural hinterland and comparatively wealthy major cities. Since the 1950s or so Kathmandu and Pokhara had been inundated with development aid, most of which transmuted into graft and only developed the cities, leaving the rest of the country desperately poor. It was fertile ground for Nepali Maoists to organize and grow a rebel movement. When the Royal family died the revolution was unstoppable. By 2006 the Maoists won and the country abolished all Royal powers.
The protests this month in Bangkok could be Thailand’s Royal massacre. Simmering resentment beneath an a-political facade has broken through in a violent orgy. Unused to dissent police open fire on protesters who magnify the violence by setting fire to the city’s landmark buildings and hurling grenades. Yesterday I saw a video on Youtube that has since been taken down of a protester being shot in the head by a military sniper. He died in a pool of blood as other protesters surged forward without regard to the danger. Even as the leaders of the protest surrender to police today, the violence just seems to magnify. As I write this the city hall is still smoldering.
Thailand is the only country in SE Asia that was never under the control of a colonial power. The tradition of self-rule has continued unbroken because of savvy partnerships between the royal family and western powers. Nepal was also never a colonial subject. While self-rule has helped Thailand become one of the most developed countries in SE Asia, its mode of governing is an anachronism in a modern world. The protesters demand new elections to oust the sitting government. Most protesters still seem to support the king, but the party that has kept him in power is losing its popularity fast.
I don’t know what is going to happen in the coming months. But I don’t think that Thailand will ever be the same. We may be witnessing a new revolution. Or we might see the protesters quashed into oblivion, only to rise up again years down the line.