No room left for democracy in Thailand’s political chaos


In calmer times, January 2014. Johan Fantenberg under a Creative Commons Licence

Six months of political turmoil in Thailand have resulted in a military coup. This has been a depressing period. One of the bleaker moments was in February, when a grenade explosion outside my local supermarket killed two children boarding a tuk-tuk. Not a large event in the broader scheme of things, just another personal tragedy punctuating the country’s gradual slide into political chaos.

Who killed those children? The attack took place alongside one of the protest sites of the yellow-shirted, anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee. So maybe it was one of the pro-government red-shirted, United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship members. Or maybe it was the yellow shirts themselves, or maybe it was another shadowy third party adding to the general sense of chaos. We avoided the supermarket for a couple of days and then drifted back.

Now Thailand is in more familiar territory – with soldiers patrolling the streets. One of the strangest aspects of recent months was that protesters were able to seize control of government buildings and set up sound stages and massive encampments that blocked some of the city’s main arteries. Very inconvenient, though in true Thai style, these camps effectively turned into street markets, with excellent food.

One of the blocked thoroughfares was Ratchdamnoen Nok, home to an army headquarters and a UN building. The soldiers parked the odd armour-plated truck alongside, but just looked passively on. Maybe they were sympathetic to the protesters; maybe they were just trying to avoid bloodshed. Now they have cleared the roads.

Thailand’s crisis can be seen, at its simplest, as a struggle of the largely poor and rural population against the middle classes and the royalist élite in Bangkok. In the past, some of this conflict was mediated through the influence of the much-revered King Bhumibol. The paternalistic monarch, on the throne since 1946, set up a number of worthy rural development projects for his grateful subjects. He was also active behind the scenes in manoeuvring between politicians and the military. Now aged 86, and in poor health, he seems to have withdrawn from the scene.

Ironically, his mantel was in part effectively adopted by a politician he is assumed to despise, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a telecoms tycoon who, during his period as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, exploited his position to consolidate his business empire. But he was also a canny populist who declared himself to be on the side of the poor. For example, he set up a scheme to support rural enterprises, and also established a cheap healthcare programme – both of which worked fairly well and are still running.

Thaksin over-reached himself with one shady business deal too many, and was overthrown in Thailand’s last military coup in 2006. He is currently exiled in Dubai, from where he pulled the strings for his sister Yingluck, who acted as his proxy prime minister from August 2011 until May 2014. She too tempted fate and was ousted by a constitutional court for abusing her powers in making a public appointment. In other countries she might have been given a rap on the knuckles. But in this case the judiciary, which is sympathetic to the opposition, forced her to resign.

There were hopes for another election, but even this might not have resolved anything. Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, or some subsequent reincarnation of it, would certainly have won yet again, since, no matter how corrupt Thaksin was, he at least offered benefits to the poor and generated some loyalty. Anticipating defeat, the opposition Democrat Party would have boycotted the election. Instead, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee would prefer to ditch democracy and have an ‘appointed government’.

Neighbouring countries have had similar governance issues – resolved, as in Laos, within a one-party state; or in Burma, through a military dictatorship; or in Cambodia, through rigged elections; or in Malaysia, through a skewed constitution; or in Singapore, through a repressive autocracy.

To speed up discussions of street protests Thai has now adopted the English word ‘mob’ – though in Thai a ‘b’ at the end of a word is pronounced as a ‘p’. A friend says: ‘I looked it up and couldn’t understand why people were referring to these crowds as floor cleaners.’

But he is clearer about what is happening now. ‘We are supposed to have a system where the people control the government which controls the army. Now we have the army which controls the government which controls the people.’

Cook Islands

Older people on the outer islands such as Atiu rely on agriculture

Despite having a resident population of less than 11,000, Cook Islands celebrates over 700 weddings per year. Fortunately, this is not due to a catastrophic divorce rate but to the romantic attraction of these largely unspoiled islands for couples from New Zealand/Aotearoa and beyond. After the nuptials, the more adventurous guests can try their hands at game fishing for marlin, tuna or wahoo, or dive into the spectacular underwater scenery, or just laze on the beach watching whales.

The Cooks, named for the 18th-century explorer, comprise 15 islands in two groups scattered over two million square kilometres of the South Pacific. Most people live in the hilly volcanic islands that make up the southern group – particularly in the largest, Rarotonga, which sports the smartest shops and resorts. The more remote northern group, largely atolls, has far fewer residents or visitors. Transport is difficult: a subsidized shipping line delivers goods to the outer islands, while passengers usually travel, expensively, by air.

Captain Cook and earlier Spanish explorers were beaten to the spot by around 400 years by the ‘Cook Islands Maori’ – originating from what are now French Polynesia and Samoa. In the 19th century the London Missionary Society laid the foundations for the country’s robust Christian legacy. By 1888, the British government, nervous that the islands might be seized by the French, made the southern group a protectorate. Then in 1901, New Zealand, overriding the objections of the islands’ ariki (chiefs), annexed both groups of islands. Independence was restored only in 1965 when the Cook Islands became self-governing in ‘free association’ with New Zealand. This allows for co-operation in defence, the use of the NZ dollar and, crucially, makes Cook Islanders NZ citizens.

Flag of the Cook Islands

In the past, people survived largely by farming or fishing or harvesting the islands’ distinctive black pearls. Many people still have plots of land, growing taro and yams, and the country exports some fresh fish and pearls. But nowadays most Cook Islanders rely directly or indirectly on tourism, mainly on the largest islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki. In 2010-11 over 108,000 visitors spent $230 million, and Rarotonga was visited by 28 cruise ships, some with more than 2,000 passengers. Tourism is healthy when New Zealanders are feeling flush, but quickly catches a chill when times are harder. Tourism also depends on regular flights by Air New Zealand – encouraged by subsidies of up to $12 million per year. The other source of foreign exchange is aid – around $44 million in 2011-12 – mostly from New Zealand, Australia and Japan. China is also making its mark, having, for example, financed a new courthouse and police station, though, as elsewhere in the Pacific, the shoddy constructions are already showing cracks.

Politics in the Cook Islands is often lively. There is a 24-member parliament, for which there have been 12 elections since 1965. In the most recent, in 2010, the Cook Islands Party, led by Henry Puna, defeated the incumbent Democratic Party, which had been tainted by a catastrophic deal with an oil company. MPs take a fairly populist line, doling out cash for weddings and other local events. And they are not renowned for loyalty, frequently changing allegiance after elections. Parliament is advised by a 15-member House of Ariki. In 2008, a group of ariki attempted a coup, aiming to recover their traditional powers and eject the British queen as head of state, though the rebellion eventually subsided. Each island also has an elected council that works with a government-appointed island secretary.

Overall, the most serious issue facing the Cooks is the exodus of young people, heading overseas for education and work. Around 50,000 Cook Islanders now live in NZ or Australia. A trickle of retirees move in the other direction, but not enough to stop the population steadily shrinking.

Federated States of Micronesia

Shelter from the rain by the walls of the Spanish fort, look up at the ruins of the German Bell Tower, glance left at the Japanese war memorial, then turn right to see the crowd cheering at a game of baseball. You are in Kolonia, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), one of the world’s most frequently colonized and loosely assembled nation-states.

FSM encompasses more than 600 islands and 110,000 people, scattered across 2.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. Often spectacularly beautiful, the islands range from vivid coral atolls to volcanic outcrops clad with dense tropical rainforests and drenched in some places with up to 400 centimetres of annual rainfall. Few people bother with umbrellas, they just get wet.

Flag of Micronesia

There are four island groups, each of which makes up a state. A quarter of the population live in Pohnpei state. More than half are in the poorer and relatively lawless and violent state of Chuuk. Around a tenth can be found in the far more placid and orderly Yap, with the rest on the quietest, two-island state of Kosrai.

There are four island groups, each of which makes up a state. A quarter of the population live in Pohnpei state. More than half are in the poorer and relatively lawless and violent state of Chuuk. Around a tenth can be found in the far more placid and orderly Yap, with the rest on the quietest, two-island state of Kosrai.

Map of Micronesia

Each state has its own language and culture. The indigenous Micronesians probably arrived by canoe a thousand or more years ago. Their most impressive legacy is Nan Madol on Pohnpei – a mysterious collection of stone ruins and canals dating from the 12th century. The islands were officially taken over by Spain in 1885, then sold to Germany in 1899. After World War One, they were seized by Japan, and after World War Two became part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States.

In 1986, the islanders achieved independence as a federation. But the US, keen to retain a strong influence in the Pacific, offered a Compact of Free Association which pays for around 60 per cent of the government budget and allows FSM citizens access to some US federal programmes, as well as the freedom to live and work in the US.

Inheritance is matrilineal but women have relatively little say in decision-making.

Mary Warren

Governance is intricate. Interlocking layers of administration establish checks and balances between the states. The ‘national’ government, with an elected Congress, is based in the capital Palakir, a sedate, purpose-built campus in the hills of Pohnpei. But each state also has its own elected governor and assembly (Chuuk’s legislature building was burned down in May 2011). Each state is divided into municipalities with an elected mayor. Overlaid on the official administration are various and mutating systems of traditional leadership. In Yap, traditional chiefs also have official powers.

The government, which employs half the formal workforce, is the source of most economic activity. Business is dominated by a few extended families. There is one large foreign-owned tuna-fishing company but most local entrepreneurs concentrate on importing and selling goods to each other or government employees. This creates few jobs and, with unemployment at around 20 per cent, young people often choose to work overseas or join the US Army.

Some tourists visit FSM, particularly for the spectacular diving sites. But transport is difficult. Even getting from one island to another can mean flying to nearby Guam and coming back on a different flight. State governments have also been wary of foreign investment. Proposals for Chinese-backed casinos, in Pohnpei or Yap, jetting in high-rollers from Macau and mainland China, are opposed by a powerful church lobby that raises the spectre of prostitution and mafia control.

FSM is surviving on a cushion of US funds. Some of the $90-million annual support is being channelled into a Trust Fund, the income from which is supposed to support the government when the Compact expires in 2023. But few people believe that this will make FSM self-sufficient.


The proprietor of a small beach resort on Upolu’s south coast

Samoa is a remarkably neat country. Carefully manicured lawns and flower-beds line the main roads, kilometre after kilometre – just one signal of the Fa’a Samoa, the traditional ‘Samoan way’. Each village has a council, the fono, made up of the heads of extended families, the matai, who, among their other local government functions, ensure regular garden inspections. Look beyond the gardens and you will see the fale, the open-sided houses used for family and village meetings. Then look up and be impressed by the biggest buildings by far: two or three substantial churches per village, encompassing most Christian denominations. On Sundays, when the capital, Apia, becomes a ghost town, Samoa’s rural roads are thronged with families resplendent in brilliant white headed for their service.

The Samoan islands in the Pacific were settled around 7,000 years ago. Then from the 1800s they were colonized, mostly by missionaries. The eastern group of islands became – and remain – the US territory of American Samoa. The western islands passed first through the hands of Germany and then New Zealand, before gaining independence as Western Samoa in 1962. In 1997, the country changed its name simply to Samoa – over the objections of American Samoa.

Samoa’s two main inhabited islands, Upolu and Savai’i, consist of green hills of volcanic origin dotted with waterfalls and small ‘plantations’ growing breadfruit, bananas, and the root vegetable, taro, that provides many people with a subsistence living. Tourism is important to the economy. Some visitors head for swish hotel-style resorts; others prefer to rent from small family businesses that offer thatched fale on the beaches. Almost all the land is communally owned, which helps protect family incomes but can frustrate entrepreneurs wanting to establish new businesses.

Still classified by the UN as a ‘least developed country’, Samoa has nevertheless made steady progress and in 2007 had the highest human development ranking in the Pacific. With strong family structures there is little severe poverty, though a fifth of the population are below a ‘basic needs’ poverty line, largely because of high food prices. Almost all children go to school, even if standards in some of the rural areas are low. And the main health problems now are those of lifestyle and diet. Samoans are typically hefty, and have produced some famous international rugby players who play for foreign clubs such as Leeds, but overall fitness levels are worrying: in 2003, 57 per cent of Samoans were classified as obese and another 28 per cent as overweight. In the few buildings in Apia with elevators, notices plead with those going to lower floors to take the stairs.

In common with other Pacific nations, Samoa suffers from its remoteness, which makes exports difficult and imports expensive. Many educated young people, seeing few opportunities in the rural areas, migrate to Apia, which now houses a quarter of the population. But work is scarce there too, so often they emigrate: around a quarter of Samoans work overseas, about 50 per cent of them in New Zealand; their remittances provide the equivalent of a fifth of GDP.

By Pacific Island standards, Samoa has been politically stable. This may reflect traditional structures which encourage or impose consensus. Nevertheless, elections are vigorous. A plethora of candidates, often from the same party, may contest a single constituency – sometimes followed by a flurry of court challenges with accusations of corruption. Even so, Samoa seems to have become effectively a one-party state dominated by the conservative Human Rights Protection Party. In part this is because of the weakness of the opposition. But it is also because the governing party has the power of patronage, which encourages defections, and has also made constitutional changes that inhibit the formation of new parties.


Inside an Adidas football factory near Bangkok.

Patrick Brown / Panos /

In October 2006, Thailand expanded its list of tourist attractions with one of the world’s most laid-back military coups. Tourists and local residents alike posed for photos alongside the tanks and cheerful soldiers. Thais are typically easy-going and notably their language has no word for ‘no’ – they have to say ‘not yes’. But on this occasion Bangkok residents seemed quite happy to say yes, especially when it appeared that their revered King Bhumibol – hitherto the country’s principal guardian of democracy – had acquiesced in the military takeover.

Thailand’s 60 million people have a great respect for their king, and also for their religion. More than 90 per cent are Buddhist and the country is dotted with thousands of gilded red-roofed temples as well as myriad miniature shrines in every nook and cranny. Every Thai boy is expected to have his head shaved and spend a short time as a monk.

By Asian standards, they are also culturally relatively homogenous. Certainly there are minorities: around half a million people belonging to marginalized hill peoples in the north and three million Muslim Malays live in the three provinces of the ‘deep South’. Nevertheless, culturally the majority of Thais have a great deal in common.

Economically, however, the divisions run deeper – with conflicts of interest between the rural poor and the urban middle classes. Around two-fifths of Thais make their living from farming. Indeed, the vast irrigated patchwork of paddy fields on the fertile central plains has made this the world’s largest rice exporter. But most of the new wealth has been generated elsewhere: in recent years Thailand has been catapulted into a dizzying process of modernization. Tourism now provides five per cent of GDP, with eleven million visitors per year, and more than a third of the country’s economic output is generated by manufacturing, much of which is now turning out electronic goods and cars.

A lot of this industry is concentrated in and around the sprawling capital, Bangkok, whose Thai name Krung Thep means ‘city of the angels’. Until recently it was more notorious for its diabolical traffic jams, but mercifully people can now glide above or below the car-choked streets on the Skytrain or the Metro.

Thailand’s breakneck modernization has, however, exacerbated rural-urban disparities. Families in the parched, impoverished northeast have to send their sons and daughters to the densely packed slums that house around a fifth of Bangkok’s population. The fracturing of family ties has also contributed to problems with drugs, particularly amphetamines, the ‘crazy pills’.

Most vulnerable of all are immigrants. Thailand’s booming economy has attracted more than a million Burmese to work on the farms and building sites. And Thailand is the nexus of trafficking routes for young women from Burma, Cambodia or China – lured by promises of factory jobs, but in fact destined for brothels. Child beggars are often Cambodians employed by organized gangs.

From the 1930s, Thailand had a series of military governments, but from the early 1990s the country seemed to have achieved a workable democracy. Things changed radically, however, from 2000 with the arrival of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party. Thaksin’s populist ‘action man’ approach, and especially a new system of health finance for the poor, made him popular in the countryside. But he also undermined many democratic institutions and often proved heavy handed, having around 2,000 drug offenders shot, for example, and sending in the army to crush protests in Muslim provinces in the south.

Early in 2006, following an especially dubious business deal by his family, there were mass public protests in Bangkok. Seeking a new mandate, Thaksin called a snap election but this was boycotted by the opposition and eventually annulled. The army, anticipating that in a rerun election the rural vote would simply produce another victory for Thai Rak Thai – and provoke further urban unrest – decided to oust Thaksin.


The Maldives

The distinctive topography of the Maldives – an archipelago of more than 1,200 small islands – allows for a strict demarcation of function. One island houses the two square kilometre capital, Male’, while an adjacent one serves as the international airport. Then there is an island to store fuel, another to serve as a rubbish dump, a further 199 or so ‘inhabited’ islands for the local population, and 80 others containing individual tourist resorts. There is also an island for detaining and torturing political prisoners.

The view from the air is spectacular. The islands are grouped into 26 white atolls in two north-south chains set in a vivid blue sea. Most local people circulate between them in traditional flat-bottomed dhonis and many earn their living by fishing for tuna. But since the 1970s the dominant industry has been tourism: more than half a million visitors arrive each year. Most are fairly well-heeled. The Rania resort, for example, charges $10,000 a night and the world’s largest private yacht, owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, can be seen gliding around. Geographical apartheid helps to keep the hedonistic tourists away from the largely Muslim population.

The tourist dollar has transformed the Maldives into the most prosperous country in South Asia – providing around a third of government revenue, as well as funnelling cash into the pockets of well-connected politicians who own resorts. But it has also been used to improve social services which, given the scattered nature of the population, are expensive to deliver and, as a result, both health and education standards have been rising, and poverty falling.

Development in the Maldives has been rapid but uneven. For one thing it relies heavily on migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, who account for more than a quarter of the labour force. Migrants make up two-thirds of secondary school teachers, for example, and most of the doctors, as well as half the staff in the tourist resorts. They are also the main source of sweated labour, clambering around the capital’s many construction sites.

Rapid development has also been socially disruptive. Family life has always been provisional. The Maldives has the world’s highest divorce rate: half of women aged 50 and above have been married four or more times – a reflection of the disapproval of extra-marital affairs combined with the ease of divorce. Added to this now are the aspirations of a newly educated generation who, bored or frustrated, are leaving the atolls for Male’. A further source of disruption is drugs: in recent years many islands have been swamped with heroin, while many children also drink ‘cola water’ (eau-de-cologne diluted with soft drinks).

Jeremy Horner / Panos /

The Maldives suffered a serious blow in December 2004 when the Asian Tsunami washed across islands most of which rise no more than one metre from the sea. Fortunately, the unique conformation of the atolls deflected and diffracted the waves and only 82 people died (many washed out to sea in the first wave were carried back in the second). The infrastructure was, however, badly damaged and many tourist resorts are still closed.

Most young people in the Maldives have known only one dictatorial ruler: Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. First elected in 1978, he has had six successive terms of office, ensured through a mixture of constitutional guile and violent repression. The Majlis (a parliament packed with Gayoom’s cronies) selected a single presidential candidate whom it offered to the voters in a yes-no referendum: guess who. Just to be sure, Gayoom also took the precaution of banning political parties and independent newspapers, radio or TV. He has also regularly imprisoned prominent dissidents. As a result, the Maldivian Democratic Party, led by Mohamed Nasheed, has had to operate from exile in Sri Lanka.

Under international pressure, Gayoom has in the last few years been pushed towards democratic reforms (see Politics, below). But he still seems determined to cling on.


Burma’s people have a rich variety of traditional costumes, corresponding to their dozens of ethnic groups, but their plainer costumes are red and green. Red is the colour for the robes of around 400,000 monks, many of whom file through the streets every morning, lining up from the smallest to the tallest, collecting rice doled out by generous households. The monks are also supported by brigades of roadside volunteers who harangue passing travellers through megaphones, rattling buckets to collect funds for their local monasteries.

Green is the colour for around 340,000 soldiers. The more senior of the ‘men in green trousers’ are to be found not just in the army, the tatmadaw, and the higher echelons of government but in myriad murky business ventures. Lower down the green ranks are the ordinary soldiers, many of whom have been forcibly recruited – boys and young men snatched from the streets or from passing buses.

Burma’s kleptocratic regime was established following a coup in 1988. The military government had responded to pro-democracy street demonstrations with brutal repression that was to kill around 10,000 people. At this point, a small group of officers, calling themselves the State Law and Order Council (SLORC), seized control – promptly renaming Burma as Myanmar, and Rangoon as Yangon, changes that pro-democracy groups continue to resist. In 1990 SLORC held elections for an assembly to design a new constitution. They were shocked to find that 80 per cent of the votes went to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San and known locally as ‘the lady’. So they rejected the election result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has largely remained ever since.

In 1997, SLORC changed its own name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but it did not alter its style of government – a sinister mix of ignorance and brutality, combined with a striking indifference not just to international opinion but to the basic needs of its own people.

Photo: Jeremy Horner/Panos Picture

The SPDC’s main pretext for repression is to enforce national unity. But it has had limited success. Much of the country’s tortured history since indepen-dence has reflected struggles between its numerous minority ethnic groups and the national government. After decades of insurgency, many have arranged ceasefires with the military regime, but they have exacted a price since it is they who now administer some of Burma’s wilder border areas.

Decades of warfare and militarization have wrought social and economic havoc. More than a million people have fled their homes either within Burma or to neighbouring countries. The economy has also been brought to its knees by incompetence, mismanagement and corruption as well as by international sanctions, notably by the US, which characterizes Burma as an ‘outpost of tyranny’. Most transnationals have withdrawn, and international aid is very limited. The unloved SPDC seems not to care.

Burma is supposedly on a ‘roadmap’ to democracy but the destination seems ever more remote. The main figure remains the hardline General Than Shwe, who has recently instigated a series of purges – in December 2004 jailing the (relatively) open-minded prime minister Khin Nyunt and many others on charges of corruption. The regime remains generally opaque. The diplomatic and aid community in Rangoon, and Burma-watchers and exile groups in Bangkok, try with limited success to discern what is going on. Most agree that the immediate outlook is grim.

Mary Warren

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