The protests currently rocking Thailand are some of the largest since the country’s political crisis began to unfold in September 2006 when the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was first ousted. Living in exile since August 2008, he has remained influential in Thai politics through his sister and incumbent party leader Yingluck Shinawatra.
The language of those opposing the exiled leader has changed over the years. From a focus on the former leader’s human rights abuses and alleged corruption, their rhetoric has shifted to one increasingly critical of Thaksin’s rural supporters – the majority of the Thai population. This shift reflects tensions in Thai identity.
There is now a surge of opinion in support of temporarily freezing democratic government and implementing an unelected “People’s Council” in order to protect the country from its own people. This view is held by a minority of the population, but is supported and proliferated by a number of key players in the Thai political system.
Most obvious among them is the leadership of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the political force behind the mobilisation of the “Yellow Shirts” in 2006 and 2008. More recently this view has also been voiced by key members of the main opposition party, the Democrats. Central to their undemocratic lobbying is a skewed perception of Thai history and identity.
The genesis of Thai nationalismThai nationalism has always been built on the premise of aspiration. Governed for centuries by elites connected to the Siamese monarchy, the late 19th century saw this small group become attached to a lavish consumer lifestyle funded largely through a profitable relationship with the European colonial powers. With the country’s internal and international trade dominated by Chinese migrant communities, Thai people of commoner status struggled to improve their social standing.
After a revolution that deposed absolute monarchy in 1932, attempts were made to expand the wage earning potential of ordinary Thais. Most were unsuccessful, but the Thai state continued to encourage the population to improve their circumstances and sought to bring all Thais into its vision of a modern nationalist economy.
It was an egalitarian approach to nation building that ultimately backfired. Drenched increasingly in the racist and chauvinistic language of the 1930s, Thailand’s nationalist leaders became re-cast during the Cold War as a product of imported ideas from the West (most notably fascism) and were increasingly viewed as incapable of representing the Thai people. Economic development remained elusive and attempts to nationalise those parts of the economy in foreign hands were increasingly viewed as ineffective. With many becoming focused on how to develop relations with a new international patron, the United States, urban Thais of commoner status began to re-think their nation.