An Ominous Break from the Past in Thailand: Implications of the Red Shirt Revolt

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 21

King Chulalongkorn (Rama IV-1868-1910) is responsible for initiating the modernization process in Thailand.  Enamored with European civilization of the time, especially European economic and scientific gains, King Chulalongkorn embraced European rule of law, capitalism, education, and to a limited extent, politics.  The king even introduced European dress to the Thai court by embracing popular European hats.   

The foundation of modernization laid by King Chulalongkorn set Thailand on a path that would eventually lead to democracy, but the way in which this genesis occurred is unique.  In 1932, in the shadow of the global economic depression, the Thai military took control, bloodlessly, of the government and changed the government’s form from absolute to constitutional democracy.  A series of mostly benign, but self-interested interventions from the military created what Elliott Kulick and Dick Wilson dubbed a “zig-zag”, or, two steps forward, one step back democratic process. [1] The military was motivated to embrace democracy for self-interested reasons, concluding that democratic capitalism was more likely to pay the military well—and more regularly—than a communist or monarchical system.  The Thai military also often insinuated itself deep into the Thai business system, starting with Field Marshal Philbul Songkram’s penchant for placing senior military officials on influential company boards in an attempt to thwart the growing dominance of Chinese businessmen in the 1930s and 1940s.  It was this self-interest on the part of the Thai military that broadened democratic development over time.
Eventually, the Thai military embraced its role as defender of democracy, intervening less frequently and only when corruption in the Thai government was rampant. The Thai military saw both communism and corrupt officials as enemies of the state and of the economic system they had come to rely on.  Modern military coups and control of government lasted for shorter and shorter periods of time, occurred in conjunction with the blessing of the king, and were largely nonviolent affairs where the corrupt officials involved apologized on exit.  These coups became known as “soft coups,” or coups with “a light touch.”

Many Thai watchers breathed a sigh of relief when a decade passed without a coup attempt (after 1991).  It appeared that Thailand was no longer on the “zig-zag” development path.  Such notions, however, were shattered on September 19, 2006 when the Thai Military staged a coup d’état against Prime Minister Thaksin Shiniwatra (Asian Sentinel, May 20).  The coup itself was bloodless and initially appeared similar to a typical Thai “soft” military takeover.

Unfortunately, this is where similarities with past military coups ended.  The king, an integral arbiter in past military coups, remained silent.  While many have interpreted King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s silence as tacit support, in the past he had been formally consulted prior to coups and had typically made public endorsements or condemnations of such actions.  In fact, two rather recent coups (1981 and 1985) were not formally endorsed by the king and failed quickly.  One commentator finds King Bhumibol’s current silence inexcusable and blames the king for the ongoing political violence (Asian Sentinel, May 20).  The scale and duration of violence and disruption associated with protests initiated by former PM Thaksin’s supporters, the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD – more commonly known as the “Red Shirts”), dwarfs that of any other protest movement in recent Thai history.  With 85 deaths, over 1,400 wounded and no end in sight to the violence between Red Shirts, Yellow Shirt counter-protesters and government forces, Thailand teeters on the verge of civil war or insurgency (Bangkok Post, May 24).  Even recent military crackdowns producing the surrender of key UDD leaders have failed to produce quiescence; an angry mob of protesters engaged in a rampant arson campaign soon after the leaders surrendered (Bangkok Post, May 19). Even if the military crackdown is successful in quelling open protest and violence, it is likely that Thaksin will use his billions in ill-gotten gains to perpetuate political agitation, possibly fueling a more clandestine insurgent or terror campaign against the military-backed government that deposed him (Asian Sentinel, May 20).
Worse yet, this is not the only violence that the Thai government has encountered.  In the south, the Islamic independence movement continues unabated.  A recent bomb attack targeting a police officer also produced 53 civilian casualties (, April 21). Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand have declared that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the central government in Bangkok despite the efforts of the government and the military (, March 30).  

Faced with either two insurgencies or a civil war and an insurgency, Thailand is no longer on a “zig-zag” democracy development path.  Instead, Thailand is on the precipice of state failure.  Lest anyone assume this is a problem solely facing the Thai people, they might do well to remember the Asian economic crisis that originated in Thailand in 1997 and eventually brought Asia, and later the rest of the world, into a deep recession.

*Disclaimer: The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

1. Elliott F. Kulick and Dick Wilson, Thailand’s Turn: Profile of a New Dragon, New York: Palgrave MacMillan Publishers, 1994