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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 19-Oct-2020
19-Oct-20 World View -- Thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok demand reform of Thailand's monarchy

Web Log - October, 2020

19-Oct-20 World View -- Thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok demand reform of Thailand's monarchy

Brief generational history of Thailand

by John J. Xenakis

This morning's key headlines from

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok demand reform of Thailand's monarchy

Pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok hold up their mobile phones as they rally in defiance of the government's emergency declaration (EPA)
Pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok hold up their mobile phones as they rally in defiance of the government's emergency declaration (EPA)

Thailand's military junta government is in crisis after five continuous days of anti-government protests in Bangkok by thousands of protesters, mostly young students, demanding that army general Prayuth Chan-ocha step down as prime minister. Protests are also spreading to other provinces.

A new aspect of these protests is the demand that the monarchy be reformed. In the past, protesters have not made this kind of demand, since criticizing the monarchy in Thailand is considered a severe violation of the law.

On Friday, police in Bangkok used a water cannon with chemical-laced water that stings the eyes to repel thousands of pro-democracy protesters. However, the protesters were mostly young students, and some were children, and so the police have been heavily criticized for attacking children with chemical laced water.

The protests began in July, and reached tens of thousands of protesters on some days in the last few days. The protesters have been copying some of the tactics of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests of last year, forming flash mobs that scatter when confronted by police, but then form a new protest in another place.

Dozens of pro-democracy activists have been jailed, but that hasn't stopped the protests, as they've used online communications to play cat and mouse with the police.

The protesters used "pop-up demonstrations" to outfox the police, leaving the police protecting an empty intersection, while they gathered at another intersection.

The protesters are mostly young people, born since the late 1990s, who have known only coups, protests and military governments during their lifetime. Many of them have vivid memories of 2010, when the Bangkok army, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, used tanks and live fire to disperse and kill "red shirt" protesters in Bangkok.

The most recent coup occurred in May 2014, when a military junta led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha overthrew the democratically elected government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and made Prayuth the prime minister.

Red Shirt vs Yellow Shirt protests

The core issue in Thailand is that there are two ethnic groups, and the ones in charge are in the minority, and the minority is repressing the majority ethnic group. In any country, this would be a situation resulting in riots, protests or even civil war, and Thailand is no exception.

The vast majority of Thailand's population are the dark-skinned lower class indigenous people, also called "Thai-Thai" and "red shirts," comprising about 3/4 of the population, living mostly in the northern and northeastern regions of Thailand, but who come to Bangkok mostly to work in menial jobs as servants of the Thai-Chinese.

The Thai-Chinese, also called "yellow shirts," are the light-skinned descendants of a wave of Chinese workers that poured into the country to find jobs in the 1930s. They comprise 1/4 of the population, live mostly around Bangkok, and are extremely contemptuous of the indigenous Thai-Thai, whom they consider to be inferior.

What this means is that if Thailand holds a free and fair election, and race is an issue, as it always is, then the indigenous Thai-Thai red shirts are going to win every time, much to the distress of the élite Thai-Chinese in Bangkok.

In the 2000s decade, an extremely charismatic leader Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001. He was born in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand with a long history of restive opposition to control by Bangkok. In office, he implemented a number of programs that were favored by the large mass of rural Thai-Thai voters in the northeast of the country. Thaksin became very popular with the poor rural voters in the north and northeast, but he angered the wealthier, better educated elite population in the southern areas around Bangkok.

When he was reelected in 2005, the army staged a bloodless coup that overthrew Thaksin's government, and forced Thaksin into exile. There were new elections in 2007, and a Thaksin's party easily won control of the government, and named a Thaksin ally as prime minister.

The new prime minister, Samak Sundaravej took office in December 2007. This is where everything turned to farce. Apparently Samak is also quite a good amateur cook, and for many years he hosted a televised cooking show. He kept on with the cooking show after he became Prime Minister, causing a court to remove him from office, because the cooking show represented a conflict of interest with his job as Prime Minister.

So Samak Sundaravej was ousted because he had a cooking show, and the parliament, still controlled by Thaksin's party, then named Somchai Wongsawat, another Thaksin ally, as prime minister. That's when the "yellow shirt" protests began.

It became clear to the élite in Bangkok that the indigenous Thai-Thai were going to keep on winning, so the yellow-shirt Thai-Chinese held massive protests in 2008, mostly peaceful, but shutting down the entire city, including the airport. Samak Sundaravej was forced to resign, and the army installed a Thai-Chinese prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Red shirt protests in 2010

At the beginning of April 2010, the "red shirt" protests began, demanding that Abhisit Vejjajiva resign, followed by new elections. Of course, new elections would mean a new red-shirt political victory.

Masses of protesters occupied Bangkok's high-class shopping district, forcing stores to close, and leading to a state of emergency. Army troops attempted to clear the protestors on April 10, but suffered a humiliating defeat, with 25 people killed, and hundreds injured.

The protests finally ended in May when the Thai army ran tanks through their barricades and assaulted them with live ammunition, and after the most radical elements of the protestors retaliated by burning down shopping centers and the stock exchange. The violence left civilians on both sides extremely bitter.

So in 2011 there was another election. The party of Thaksin Shinawatra's political party easily won the parliamentary election decisively again, as was obvious that it would, and the parliament selected a new prime minister -- Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin, who was still in exile in Dubai. And to add the comedy, she said the following:

I am ready to fight according to the rules and I ask for the opportunity to prove myself. I ask for your trust as you used to trust my brother. I will utilise my femininity to work fully for our country."

Well, the misogynists in the Thai-Chinese élite somehow weren't fully charmed by Yingluck's femininity.

Returning 'power to the people' in 2014

In December 2013, yellow shirt rioters were back in the street again, with anti-government protests. About 30,000 "yellow shirt" rioters occupied government buildings and hurled stones and petrol bombs at police, who fired back tear gas. At least four people were killed and dozens injured. The anti-government yellow shirt leader Suthep Thaugsuban met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and gave her a 48 hour ultimatum "to return power to the people."

Was Suthep calling for new elections? Obviously not, since that would just mean another victory for the hated dark-skinned Thai-Thai indigenous red shirt majority. It turned out that what he meant was that he was demanding that Yingluck resign, and that a new "People's Council" select the next prime minister. Presumably, the People's Council would be packed with Thai-Chinese.

What the yellow-shirts were objecting to was a rice-subsidy scheme that Yingluck began in 2011 that paid rice farmers above market rate for their crop. This pleased the Thai-Thai rice farmers in the north around Chiang Mai, but it cost the government $21 billion, and infuriated the powerful élite Thai-Chinese opposition in Bangkok.

A month later, in January 2014, Yingluck offered to resign and call for new elections, but the yellow shirt élite protesters forced the new election to be called off because they knew that Yingluck's party would win.

In Thailand, the Thai-Chinese elites are backed by the monarchy, the army and the courts. So in May 2014, the courts ruled that Yingluck and her government should be impeached because of the rice subsidy. Then they used the courts to appoint the "People's Council" described above.

However, General Prayuth Chan-ocha didn't wait that long. He seized control of the government two days later, and announced on Thai television:

"In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again ... and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power."

Love and peace - more comedy. In 2017, Yingluck was convicted of corruption, but the army looked the other way when she fled the country, fearing popular riots from her supporters. Yingluck is now in exile with her brother Thaksin.

After the 2014 coup, Prayuth promised to hold elections in early 2015, then in 2016, and then in November 2018, canceling them each time. Finally he held a rigged election in March 2019, which he won.

That brings us to 2020, and new protests by the Thai-Thai red shirts.

Many of these protesters were young children when General Prayuth used bullets and tanks to disperse and kill their parents and older brothers and sisters during the red shirt protests in 2011.

The army is being criticized for using water cannons on the protesters on Friday, since the water contained burning chemicals, and many of the protesters were children.

Demands to reform Thailand's monarchy

The ruling élite face the continuing problem that 3/4 of Thailand's population are the hated dark-skinned indigenous Thai-Thai red shirts, and they will win any election in a democracy. The ruling élite may have found a solution: Restore the monarchy so that the King is ruling again, and there are no more elections. No more democracy.

The problem with this solution is that the current king is so scandal-ridden and so unpopular that any solution like this would lead to a further backlash among red shirts, and possibly even among yellow shirts.

Thailand's previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, was born on December 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was on the throne in Thailand since 1946, and so until his death on October 13, 2016, he was ever-present as King of Thailand, and the only monarch that almost every resident of Thailand had ever known. Bhumibol had been a calming voice that had seen Thailand through multiple national crises, including several coups and military takeovers, and so he was highly revered, so much so that the country has passed so-called "lèse-majesté" laws that make it a crime to even criticize the monarchy.

Despite his being 88 years old, Bhumibol's death in 2016 still came as a shock to the Thai people, probably most of all to the person next in line for the throne, the highly unpopular 62-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn was an international playboy, living mostly in Germany, who had been divorced four times, and who had disowned his own children by one of the wives. So he didn't even want to be king, but he reluctantly assumed the throne a year later, under pressure from the army, and became King Rama X.

Vajiralongkorn's numerous scandals and his reported cruelty to his wives and servants have made him a target of the protesters. However, even a mild criticism can make someone liable for arrest under the "lèse-majesté" laws. In fact, the army junta has made draconian use of the lèse-majesté as a tool for jailing dissidents.

The protesters are demanding that the monarchy be reformed. They're particularly critical of his vast wealth and his taking personal control of $40 billion of Thailand's financial assets.

The élite have decided that they can no longer hold elections, since the hated Thai-Thai red shirts will always win. Prayuth denies that there are plans to replace the democracy with a new monarchy ruled by Vajiralongkorn. However, Vajiralongkorn's act in taking control of $40 billion of Thailand's assets leads many to believe that replacing the democracy with a monarchy is just a step away.

Brief generational history of Thailand

Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra were born in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is the red shirt stronghold, and plays an important part in Thailand's history.

Chiang Mai was built in 1296 to be the capital city of the Lanna Kingdom (the kingdom of a million rice fields). The Lanna kingdom was successfully invaded and incorporated into Burma as a vassal state in 1557. Over the next 200 years Chiang Mai fell at various times under the rule of the strongest invader, be it Burma or Siam.

In 1774, Siam finally drove the Burmese out of the Lanna Kingdom. The Lanna Kingdom eventually became part of Siam in 1892. The Lanna Kingdom was gradually dissolved and condensed into an area centered around Chiang Mai. 1932 the whole Chiang Mai area officially became a province of Siam.

Thailand's King Rama had fought a generational crisis war in the early 1830s when he had invaded Laos and Cambodia, but ended up losing to a Vietnamese army.

Siam's next generational crisis war occurred in what is now southern Thailand. For centuries, Siam's kings had felt that the Muslims in southern Siam were a major threat to the security of the country, mainly because resistance and rebellion against Thai government rule were so strong among the Muslim population, and in fact the southern Muslims had revolted during the 1830s crisis war.

By the late 1800s this threat had been felt to be critical, and in 1902 King Rama V invaded and annexed the Malay kingdom of Patani, consisting of the four provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. (Note: The kingdom is spelled "Patani," while the province is spelled "Pattani.") In 1909, an Anglo-Siamese Agreement established the present border between Thailand and Malaysia.

During the next few decades, Siam (which became Thailand in 1939) was faced with the problem of trying to assimilate the southern Muslim population into what is essentially a Buddhist country. During the generational Awakening era that followed, the military coup of 1932 overthrew the absolute monarchy in Siam and replaced it with constitutional monarchy. This was a representative form of government that promised a high degree of political participation of the Malay-Muslims in the South. However, as World War II (an Awakening era war for Thailand) approached, the country became more Thai-nationalistic, and the country adopted a policy of forced assimilation towards the Muslims, which had little success, as resistance and rebellion have continued since then.

The 1930s also saw a large influx of migrants from China, coming to the country to work. Over the decades, they were able to displace the indigenous people in positions of power in government, and in control of businesses. This formed an ethnic fault line between the indigenous Thai-Thai majority and the elite Thai-Chinese minority.

Thailand's next generational crisis war was the Cambodian "killing fields" war, 1975-79, in which Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge government, backed by China, killed up to 3 million people in a massive genocide. The Cambodian war spilled over into Thailand in the form of a communist rebellion that had begun in the 1960s. King Bhumibol (Rama IX) became an essential figure in the fight against the communists, although his role became more controversial in the savage anti-leftist coup of 1976, in which dozens of students were brutally killed by the security forces and royal-backed militias, and thousands forced to flee to seek sanctuary with the Communist Party.

The Cambodian "killing fields" civil war took place on Thailand's doorstep, though not on Thai soil. Still, it caused a split along the Thai-Thai versus Thai-Chinese fault line that continues to the present time. Today, Thailand is in a new generational Awakening/Unraveling era, and we're seeing a repeat of what happened in the 1930s.

During the generational Awakening era of the 1930s, the military coup of 1932 overthrew the absolute monarchy in Siam and replaced it with constitutional monarchy that gave some power to the southern Muslims, only to have it taken away a few years later.

During the current era, the 1997 constitution guaranteed free elections for everyone, including the indigenous Thai-Thai, and now that's been taken away by a military junta.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.


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