See More on Facebook

Opinion, Politics

A land with no smiles

The Thai middle class’ Faustian bargain with the military is hampering true democracy in the country.


Written by

Updated: September 21, 2018

Almost ten years ago, I met a protester on the streets of Bangkok. It was a time of protest and political instability with the drama between the government and protesters spilling out onto the streets. To protect his identity against possible military reprisal, let us call him Nadech.

Nadech will unlikely be recorded in history books, he was not a political leader, nor a despotic general or any other archetype of Thai history. He was a simple junk-store hawker, an occupation that involves going from house to house and sorting garbage to sell. His family had done well enough through grit and hard work to open a small convenience store in his home province.

Nadech had taken to the streets in 2010 because he had believed the promises that exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had made and had seen, first hand, the changes that Thaksin had brought. The single-payer health care system that had helped his mother and children, the microloans that bought him his car, the subsidies that helped his farmer friends. I was struck by Nadech’s earnestness and conviction and realized that Nadech’s political awakening was a mirror of a much larger movement.

He had listened to pro-Thaksin radio stations and agreed with their view that when the military deposed Thaksin, it was the elite of the country changing the rules of the game to prevent the lower classes from taking control.

During the protests of 2010, I asked Nadech, what about the allegations of corruption against Thaksin? What about the damage to the economy this would bring? Were the benefits that he was experiencing worth bankrupting the nation? He replied that all politicians in his memory were corrupt, at least Thaksin was helping the people while doing so. Nadech would stay at the red-shirt protests through 2010 until the military launched a violent crackdown which resulted in over 90 deaths and countless more injured. Nadech would escape unscathed.

A Different Protest

Fast forward four years and Bangkok’s streets were once again filled with protesters, this time of a different color. These protesters, wearing Thai flag adorned attire and blowing loudly into whistles, drew mostly from the country’s urban middle class and higher echelons of Thai society. The protests themselves became a social media event with prominent members of the business community, celebrities and socialites posting protest Instagram pictures and Facebook posts.

Led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, the protesters demanded the removal of the government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, accusing it of corruption and being a proxy for the exiled Thaksin. The flashpoint which drew out the protest was an amnesty bill introduced by Yingluck’s government which would pave the way for Thaksin’s return.

But even after the government withdrew the amnesty bill, the protests continued. Many protest leaders called for a ‘reset of democracy’ with a French revolution reign-of-terror style council to judge politicians and dole out sentences. Suthep and his compatriots called for the military to step in and take command, claiming the country was at a breaking point.

When the army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha finally launched a coup d’état on May 22, 2014, the protest leaders gathered at a high-end Bangkok restaurant dressed in military-style clothing to celebrate their victory.

I returned to Nadech after the protest and subsequent coup to ask him his thoughts. He said he was angry that he was right. He said that the red-shirts knew that the military and upper-class Thais would never accept the choice of government elected by the poor. I mentioned the amnesty bill, the corrupt rice scheme that Yingluck had put in place which benefitted her cronies at the cost of billions to the economy. I said, to a lot of people, there were not enough checks and balances that could stop politicians from hurting the country even if they were democratically elected.  Nadech asked what kinds of checks and balances will stop the army from doing the same now that they were in power. I had no answers for him.

Military Rule

It is 2018, the military has ruled for over four years, bringing in sweeping reforms, a new constitution that enhances military power, and mega-construction projects. The prime minister and former coup-maker Prayuth Chan-ocha, rules with absolute power. He has at his disposal a ‘dictatorial clause’ within the legal framework that allows him to step in on any issue at any time and do as he pleases. Journalists have been arrested, activists have been silenced and political parties are not allowed to congregate or meet. Prayuth promised elections within a year of taking power, the goalposts have repeatedly been moved.

In his first few years of rule, the military dictator enjoyed positive approval ratings among the Bangkok middle class and even among the rural poor. Both groups, fatigued by a decade of political instability and protests, welcomed the lull. But after four years of military rule, there are cracks appearing in the junta’s façade. A sluggish economy coupled with rising household debt and commodity prices have hurt the working class while corruption scandals, including a luxury-watch saga involving the deputy prime minister, have raised questions from the urban middle class.

But unlike in a democracy, there is no alternative to the current government. Protests are illegal and dissent is met with repression and lengthy legal proceedings. One cannot simply vote out the junta, only stand by and hope that Prayuth fulfils his promise to hold an election. Even then, the framework put in place by the military will see them wield significant power no matter the outcome of the elections.

It also seems that the political awakening that the poor had experienced in the early part of this century has taken a large step backwards. As Nadech puts it:

“What is the point of democracy anymore? Even if we vote in someone we like, they will just get rid of them again. We are done, they arrest us, kill us, silence us, it is better to just go back and take care of our businesses and farms.”



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Cod Satrusayang
About the Author: Cod Satrusayang is the Managing Editor at Asia News Network.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Opinion, Politics

Beijing slams unrest and backs HK govt’s use of lawful means to tackle it

Protests have shut down Hong Kong for the past several days before a government crackdown. Beijing yesterday condemned the unrest that broke out in Hong Kong over the city’s extradition Bill as an organised riot, and said it supported the local government’s use of lawful means to resolve the situation. Asked if the central government supported the use of rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong was against any act that undermines the city’s prosperity and stability. “Any civilised and lawful society will not tolerate the destruction of peace and tranquillity,” he said. “The Chinese central government strongly condemns all types of violence and supports the Hong Kong government to handle the matter according to the law.” Chinese state media


By The Straits Times
June 14, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Taiwan expresses support, solidarity with Hong Kong

Taiwan advocacy groups call for retaliation against Hong Kong extradition bill. Dozens of civic groups in Taiwan called on the government on June 11 to adopt concrete regulations in response to Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill, suggesting tighter controls on investments from Hong Kong and visits by its civil servants, for example. In a statement issued ahead of the expected second reading of the bill Wednesday, the groups urged the Taiwan government to submit a countermeasure proposal to the Legislative Yuan during its extraordinary session on June 17. The Taiwan government should also issue a statement, asking the Hong Kong government to halt its review of the bill, which could put the personal freedom of Taiwanese nationals at risk, as it would allow the Hong Kong government to send suspects to China for trial, the groups said. Despite fierce opposition by an est


By ANN Members
June 13, 2019

Opinion, Politics

China blames ‘lawlessness’ for Hong Kong

Lawlessness undermining rule of law in Hong Kong, says China Daily editorial. The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has explained many times the proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s fugitive law are meant to better protect Hong Kong society by plugging the loopholes in the existing laws in order to enhance the rule of law. Rather than pushing through a bill against the wishes of Hong Kong society as some have tried to portray, the government has made changes to the proposed bill more than once in response to concerns expressed in the community. As a result, most of the members of Legislative Council of the special administrative region, who are accountable to their voters, now support the amendments. Nor is it a hasty or unnecessary move. Indeed the need for an extradition agreement with the mainland was acknowledged by government officials and legal experts ahead of H


By China Daily
June 13, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Hong Kong protests turn violent

At least 72 people taken to hospital during clashes with police. At least 72 people were injured and taken to hospital during clashes between police and protesters on Wednesday (June 12) over a contentious extradition Bill, said Hong Kong authorities. By night time, police officers were still in a stand-off with protesters on Queensway, not far from Admiralty Station, even though most of the protestors had dispersed following the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Earlier, police fired rubber bullets at protesters after they declared a “riot” as – for the second time in days – clashes broke out between police and protesters demonstrating against the controversial extradition Bill.


By The Straits Times
June 13, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Nepal Prime Minister’s speech in UK is filled with irony

Nepal’s prime minister celebrated democratic freedoms in his UK speech but it contradicts what he’s doing at home. While Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Monday speech at the Oxford Union in the United Kingdom valorised the importance of freedoms, rights and democracy, back home, his government has been criticised for what many see as an authoritarian turn, stifling freedom of speech and steadily encroaching on human rights. In his speech at the Oxford Union, Oli said that as someone who had spent over five decades fighting for democratic rights, and as a result, been imprisoned for 14 years, including four years in solitary confinement, he knew “how important access to education and freedom of speech are for people and society to grow, deve


By The Kathmandu Post
June 12, 2019

Opinion, Politics

Abe to visit Iran to mediate with U.S.

The Japanese Prime Minister is due in Tehran today. The government is making arrangements for Abe to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. Abe will encourage the United States and Iran to hold direct dialogue, aiming to mediate the increasing tensions between two countries over their nuclear agreement. It will be the first visit to Iran by an incumbent prime minister in 41 years, since former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda visited the country in 1978, and the first since the Islamic revolution of 1979. According to government sources, the government is considering having Abe meet with Rouhani on Wendesday and with Khamenei on Thursday. Foreign Minister Taro Kono will visit Teheran on Wednesday before Abe’s arrival and meet with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.


By The Japan News
June 12, 2019