Sreeram Chaulia

Thai politics has degenerated into a relentless slugfest, generating spin-offs of narrow nationalism and militarism.

When clashes broke out on October 15 between the armies of Thailand and Cambodia over a disputed medieval Hindu temple tract, they were the first instances of inter-state hostilities in Indochina since 1989. The attacks and reprisals along the Preah Vihear temple complex on the Thai-Cambodian border claimed two Cambodian and six Thai lives and disturbed the relatively tranquil international relations in Southeast Asia.

Preah Vihear — originally built by two Khmer Hindu kings, Suryavarman I and II, in the 11th and 12th centuries — had in essence been an internal affair since 1962, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded it to Cambodia on the basis of historical ownership claims. While Thailand grudged that decision, it was bound to honour it after agreeing to abide by the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the first place. Since then, although nationalistic Thais had from time to time raised the question of Preah Vihear as a “lost territory,” the issue seemed as good as settled. Until this year, that is.

Wars and inter-state tensions often originate in domestic politics of countries rather than in international structural manoeuvring. The mobilising power of militant nationalism, in combination with internal power struggles, can stoke armed conflicts with adjoining countries. When one’s home is on fire, raiding a neighbour is a dangerous but rational stratagem for politicians.

Why did an idyllic Hindu temple have to suddenly erupt as a casus belli between two Buddhist countries, Thailand and Cambodia, after it seemed to have been mutually settled decades ago? The answer lies in the politics of confrontation and polarisation that has paralysed Thailand ever since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in a military coup d’etat in September 2006. From that point onward, Thai politics degenerated into a relentless slugfest, generating spin-offs of narrow nationalism and militarism.

A billionaire telecommunications magnate such as Thaksin appears an unlikely messiah of socialist redistribution, but electoral democracy has thrown up stranger anomalies. As the first Thai premier to complete a full term in office between 2001 and 2006, Thaksin devised a populist strategy to retain his voter base — empowering the country’s majority rural poor through low-cost healthcare, debt relief and cheap credit schemes. This infuriated the ‘Bangkok elite’ and raised alarm that the taxes being paid by city dwellers were being transferred to the ‘undeserving poor’ of the countryside.

Although urban-rural gaps are commonplace in Southeast Asia’s late industrialising and emerging economies, the figure of Thaksin offered sharp political relief to the divide in Thailand and led to the formation of a rightist opposition block called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The social base of PAD comprises highly educated middle and upper class urban Thais, conservative academicians, businesspersons and sections of the Thai military bent on preserving the domination of the establishment against ‘upstart’ Thaksin.

From 2005, PAD was on the warpath to depose Thaksin by all means. It provided the backdrop of chaos that facilitated the military overthrow of Thaksin in 2006. For all its disruptive feats, PAD received a slap in the face in the 2007 general elections, when the majority of rural Thais voted overwhelmingly in favour of Thaksin’s allies, Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. PAD was reconstituted with a more diabolic agenda by conservative Thai elites to keep up the pressure on the newly elected government.

The neo-PAD’s ideology combines semi-fascist disdain for electoral democracy with a reverence for royalism, aristocracy, and revanchist Thai nationalism. In a classic case of misappropriation of language, PAD claims to be ‘democratic’ but conducts mass rallies, sit-ins, occupations of key government buildings, arson, looting and even armed attacks on supporters of the ruling party with the demand that “Thaksin’s protégés,” although elected, should resign immediately.

By holding a duly elected government to siege through mobs and militant ‘street power,’ PAD has taken Thailand to the brink of yet another potential military coup. Since the Samak and Somchai governments have completed barely one year of their elected term, PAD is arguing in unconcealed anti-democratic vein that Thailand suffers from an “excess of democracy” and that this should be balanced by having more appointed and nominated public office holders.

On this point, PAD enjoys the backing of Thailand’s power-savvy monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been a master manipulator of the country’s politics for five decades. Notwithstanding Bhumibol’s carefully crafted image as an apolitical paterfamilias, he is a highly activist sovereign with strong corporate and political ambitions. Thaksin’s fault, according to insiders, was not so much corruption or mismanagement of the economy as angering the king, who is traditionally the charismatic demigod of religious rural Thais.

The Thai military and judiciary’s persecution of Thaksin and his followers over the years could not have taken place without the explicit or tacit prodding of the palace. Likewise, the reason why premier Somchai is unable to launch a decisive crackdown on the PAD’s months-long blackmail occupation of government sites in Bangkok is also due to fear of royal umbrage.

By refusing to engage in negotiations and upping the ante through violent agitations, PAD has caused enough panic in the Thai government to compel changing the venue of the upcoming 14th annual ASEAN summit from Bangkok to the less embroiled northern town of Chiang Mai. What is more, it is increasingly evident that the Samak and Somchai governments upped the ante on Preah Vihear with Cambodia as a defensive and diversionary move when faced with an existential threat from PAD.

True to its reactionary credentials, PAD and its media mouthpieces had been drumming up hysteria against Cambodia as a usurper of Preah Vihear and lampooning Thaksin’s allies in government as cowards who cannot restore Thailand’s ancient glory. Political parties in Cambodia also took on a strident position on the temple issue in view of elections in that country earlier this year, but the credit for transforming this dispute from a sleeping dog into a smouldering volcano belongs to PAD. The more PAD-fuelled xenophobia that the incumbents in Bangkok were selling out on their country’s “legitimate sovereignty” over Preah Vihear, the more the government was forced to adopt a forward posture along the international border with Cambodia, ultimately resulting in a fire fight.

Thankfully, the cross-border encounter of October 15 claimed fewer lives compared to the human toll of the spate of stand-offs inside Thailand between the elected government of Thaksin’s embattled brother-in-law, Somchai, and the undemocratic PAD. The Preah Vihear border conflict is an obvious spill over from Thailand’s domestic cauldron, which shows no signs of cooling down as long as PAD is propped up by pro-king and pro-urban elite elements.

The latest twist in the saga is the counter-organisation of mass rallies against PAD by the ruling party, a la Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, with the exiled Thaksin making his volatile presence felt through video-linking technology. If Thailand is headed for civil war or one more coup, a larger patchwork of fragile border agreements across Indochina could unravel. It is therefore in the interests of the entire Southeast Asia to help douse the flames in Thai politics before they engulf the region.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.)