Anti-Government Protests In Thailand: A Political Sociology of Elite and Class Conflict


This paper shows that the dynamic class relations in Thailand offer some useful perspectives on the current political struggle taking place on the streets of Thailand. Rather than seeing a discontent minority in opposition, which views itself overwhelmed and steamrolled by a majority led by reformist business elites Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, there is an active class struggle between two elite factions in Thailand, who are vying for political supremacy. This is a twist from the classic Marxist and Weberian account of class conflict between workers and capitalists, because in Thailand the struggle takes place among elites, whereby the workers and the farmers principally support one elite faction, the reformists. They stand in opposition to the conservative minority, which has supporters among some businessmen, the monarchy, the military, and the professional middle class. The capitalist-worker paradigm is still an underlying feature of the class struggle, but it is strongly mediated by the two elite factions that immediately contend for political power.


An estimated 150- to 200,000 people from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led by Suthep Thaugsuban are protesting against the government of Thailand, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, wanting her to resign her post (Peck and Wedel 2014). Prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in turn dissolved the parliament on December 9, 2013, in the hope to quell the anti-government protests, but so far it appears to be that the resolve against the ruling government has merely been strengthened. Why do so many people try to topple the legitimate and democratically elected government? The simple answer is that democracy rests on rather tenuous foundations in Thailand (e.g. King and LeGerfo 1996; Ufen 2008; Keane 2014), and that Yingluck Shinawatra is in power due to the grace of her older brother Thaksin, the former prime minister. Thaksin is opposed by the PAD opposition. The protest is, among others, directed against the political dynasty.1 Thaksin Shinawatra was himself toppled after serving as Thailand’s prime minister for five years. The official charge against Thaksin was that he was corrupt and abused his power, which is the same charge leveled against sister Yingluck (Peck and Wedel 2014). He was also charged with defaming King Bhumibol (lese majeste), interference with state agencies and creating social divisions.2 Thaksin fled to exile abroad, but was sentenced to two years in jail if he returned to Thailand (Cambpell 2014). Due to his political connections he was able to receive protection from various governments in Nicaragua, United Arab Emirates, Montenegro (where he currently holds citizenship), and Cambodia (where he was the government’s chief economic adviser from 2008 to 2009) (Terwiel 2011, 300). Political turmoil is nothing unusual in Thai history. There have been 11 successful and 7 attempted coups since the country was founded in 1932 (Fischer 2013).

The interesting facts are the dynamics of class politics in Thailand, which I will describe after outlining some relevant political events since Thaksin’s overthrow. My argument is that the leading driver of current political conflict in Thailand is the contest between conservatives around king Bhumibol, the military and some members of the business elite and the new rich around the Shinawatra family. The former are also supported by the professional middle class around Bangkok, and the latter by the farmers and workers in the populous north and north-east of Thailand.

What follows is a brief historical narrative of recent political tensions in Thailand. Back in 2006, the military leadership under general Sonthi Boonyaratglin took over the reigns of the government after ousting Thaksin, and he handed power back to a civilian prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, after ruling for one and a half weeks. Sonthi stayed on as chief of the military junta, and resigned his post in September 2007 in order to become deputy prime minister in the Surayud government. A new constitution pushed by the military weakened the executive power of the prime minister in the hope of preventing another Thaksin. The military was strengthened under the new constitution (Thi 2007; Hewison 2013a, 185). The military really wanted to get rid of Thaksin’s red shirts, the populist Thai Rak Thai party, but democratic elections in 2007 gave power to the People’s Power Party (PPP), the successor organization of the Thai Rak Thai Party, which had been dissolved by court order. PPP was led by Samak Sundaravej, who led the country for about eight months in 2008 before being ousted- this time by the court,3 which judging by its rulings sides with the military. He was sentenced for breaking the law that prohibited government officials from taking on other paid employment. Samak was a TV chef while in office (Fawthrop 2009). Samak was followed by Somchai Wongsawat, who is the brother-in-law of Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra (married to their sister, Yaowapha). But Somchai ruled for a mere three months until December 2008, when an anti-corruption body ousted Somchai for neglecting his duties while working in the Justice department eight years prior to his premiership.

On December 2, 2008, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered the PPP to be dissolved even though it was the strongest political party in parliament, while Charavat Charnvirakul was appointed as the temporary prime minister. Numerous ex-PPP members of parliament switched their allegiance to the Democrat Party. The opposition Democrat Party was then able to cobble together a parliamentary majority to elevate its party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to premiership. During the three years of Abhisit’s rule, no military coup was carried out, because the military supported him (e.g. Walker 2012, 4), but his party was heavily attacked from the left by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which staged multiple demonstrations against the government. Many farmers were supporting the UDD, criticizing and attacking the privileged elite, which the Oxford-educated Abhisit represented (Terwiel 2011, 304). Abhisit had to move the seat of the government to a military base to escape the pressure on the street. In April 2010, Abhisit decided to use police force against UDD to break up the protests leading to numerous deaths and injuries (Terwiel 2011, 307). Pro-Thaksin red shirts were well prepared, and used slingshots, homemade fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and burning tires to fight against the authorities (Walker 2012, 4). Over 90 people died and 1,800 people were injured as a result of the military crackdown in 2010 (Mala 2012).

UDD was allied with the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party, which promptly won the parliamentary elections in 2011, and elevated Yingluck Shinawatra to power. UDD received funds from Thaksin,4 who is among the richest people in Asia with a net worth of $1.7 billion,5 though it is a small amount compared to the monarch’s $37 billion (Grossman and Faulder 2011). Yingluck had been a very popular prime minister when she came into office in August 2011, receiving even higher approval ratings than her older brother, Thaksin, when he ruled.6 Yingluck’s rule was fairly steady for about two years until October 2013, when a bill that came up in parliament proposed a pardoning of former prime ministers Abhisit Vejjajiv, Suthep Thaugsuban, and Thaksin Shinawatra, which would imply a dropping of the corruption and lese majeste charges against him, and would allow him to return back to Thailand.7 Abhisit and Suthep were indicted for their responsibility of the 2010 government crackdown against protestors.8

The opposition Democrat party led by Sutep Thaugsuban used this bill as an opportunity to stage large-scale protests calling for the resignation of Yingluck’s government,9 even as a majority of the people asked in a poll wanted the protests to end.10 (Also ironic, since the bill would have cleared Suthep from indictment.) Bangkok was shut down by the ‘yellow shirts’, who are the protestors that filled the squares of the city. Pro-government ‘red shirts’ staged counter rallies in support of the Yingluck government.11 On November 25, anti-government protestors began to occupy government buildings and offices.12 During a clash between anti- and pro-government protestors on November 30 and December 1, 2013, four people died and 57 more were injured.13 Yingluck’s announcement to dissolve the parliament on December 9 was rejected by the opposition Democrats, who wanted an unelected “people’s council” to take over. Yingluck rejected this demand, citing a violation of the constitution.14 On January 7, 2014, 308 Thai members of parliament from the ruling Pheu Thai party were indicted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission for attempting to alter the composition of the upper house parliament, proving another blow to the Yingluck regime (Campbell 2014). Yingluck can hold on to power despite the protests, in part because the military under army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha had announced to remain neutral in the conflict15 unlike during the fall of her brother Thaksin, which was due to the military coup. Yingluck resists a police crackdown on the protestors, because she fears a military coup (Pitman 2014). She also expects the military to help safeguard fair elections.16 Carrying broad support from the rural north and north-east of the country, Yingluck can expect resounding success in the snap elections in February. For this reason, opposition protestors have blocked access to voting booths.17

The 2013-14 political crisis in Thailand had some economic impacts: the nation’s currency, the baht, dropped to a three year low in December 2013, while 10-year government bonds increased from 3.625% to 4.02%.18 Several Singapore Airlines flights to Bangkok were cancelled, citing the political turmoil as reason (Kaur 2014). In the same month, the stock index dropped by 12%. Exports and tourism from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan dropped dramatically. A total of $2.1 billion in damages had been inflicted on the Thai economy between November 2013 and January 2014.19

The decisive question that remains unanswered is why the political protests could continue for so long in Thailand. Why would the military, the courts and the Democrat Party not listen to the democratic and parliamentary majority favoring the Shinawatra government, and use large-scale protests as a method to get their voiced heard? A simplistic reading would suggest that Suthep and the Democrats are merely making their voices heard as members of the minority faction, which gets steamrolled by the oppressive mob. This is an argument that goes as far back as Plato (2012, Chapter VIII, IX), Polybius (1927, Book VI), Aristotle (1797, Book VI) and James Madison (1787). The official reasoning by the opposition leader, Suthep, is precisely to use the demonstration to force the resignation of Yingluck Shinawatra and her replacement with a supposedly neutral governing council, which is not democratic. The confusion using this official reasoning is that setting up an unelected board is not really democratic, even as Suthep’s ‘yellow shirts’ portray themselves as democratic and from the people. This contradiction shows that while lip service is paid to democracy authoritarianism is really the major element in Thai politics and the Democrat party (also explored in Chaloemtiarana 2007)

The opposition has also consistently made the charge against the Shinawatra family to be a powerful business and political ruling class family using its might for corrupt self-serving purposes. Yingluck had been criticized for corruption in the rice subsidy scheme for farmers and infrastructure projects favoring cronies over others (Roughneen 2014). A court might find Yingluck guilty and force her from office.20 There is certainly some truth to that statement. But Suthep himself is no innocent politician. When he was the minister of agriculture in 1994, Suthep awarded 592 plots of land to 489 farmers as part of a land reform scheme. 11 members of wealthy families were part of the recipients, even though the reform was designed to benefit poorer farmers. The corruption scandal brought the loss of the parliamentary majority for the Chuan Leekpai government in 1995 (McCargo 2004, 14-15). Both Democrat Party leaders, Abhisit and Suthep, complaining about Shinawatra’s corruption, have been charged with corruption themselves for handing out all the bids for building a police station project to one company while in office.21 So if there are no innocent rulers in Thailand, then the statements of the opposition party can not be evaluated at face value to explain the cause of the anti-government protests.

Another charge from the opposition is that Shinawatra’s policy has been to buy votes with populist easy-money policies and subsidies to the poor, but that really is only for the benefit of the Shinawatra’s private family fortune (Hookway 2014). There does seem to be some truth behind this statement, because the Shinawatra wealth has increased, while they were serving as heads of government. And in Thailand there is a tendency of businessmen to make money by getting involved in politics (Girling 1996; for the Shinawatra clan in particular see Pathmanand 1998), but at the same time, what Thaksin and Yingluck are doing is precisely what is expected in a democratic system, which is to serve the needs of their constitutents, which Suthep and the conservatives have a problem with. If the opposition wants to insist on the populist, easy-money charge, then it also is admitting that it does not approve of democratic means to rule the country.

Another simplistic explanation is that there is nothing extraordinary in the power struggle among Yingluck and Suthep, because both leaders want to have access to power. This explanation may be plausible, but it is a meaningless explanation. Of course, both parties seek access to power, but what is the socio-political base for these two parties? Who is the driving force behind the ‘yellow’ and the ‘red’ shirts? The interesting theme that emerges out of this discussion is that the two political factions should be examined more closely in order to find out what is driving the political conflict in Thailand. My analysis seeks to show that there are two elite-based groups, the conservative businessmen in the south, and the populist and reformist businessmen (mainly Thaksin Shinawatra and his family) in the north. The former camp enlists the educated middle-class in Bangkok and surrounding regions, and the latter camp enlists the poor peasants and workers in the northern countryside. It is the inability of the conservative faction to gain power through democratic means that they resort to street protests to overthrow the Yingluck government that threatens conservative interests with her populist policies.

Social Theory of Class and Power

Before I explain the way how class and politics is organized in Thailand, I will present some basic social theories on class and its relationship to power. I will then apply this theory to the contemporary situation in Thailand. The most basic theory on class was enunciated by Karl Marx (1848). In his concept, there are two major classes, the property-owning bourgeoisie and the property-less proletariat, who are directly contending with each other for power, sometimes in politics through the contesting of elections and various political parties. The bourgeoisie is usually represented in conservative or liberal parties, and the workers in social democratic or communist parties, at least in European countries. But Marx did not think that elections or politics were the major realm of class conflict, but the workplace. It is at work that workers have to produce a surplus, and there the fight over working conditions and labor organizing is becoming the most acute. For Marx, the end result of the class struggle was clear. The capitalist bourgeoisie would develop the economy with their unyielding quest for capital accumulation, and haul in more workers to guarantee him this result. But by pulling in more workers into the production process, the capitalist is inevitably creating his own gravediggers. As the capitalist system approaches its final crisis, the workers will seize state power and destroy the bourgeois order, creating a good state that serves everyone according to their needs. The last prediction about the impending downfall of capitalism has not yet been proven.

But where Marx’ ideas on class and power are fairly clear is that while the modern class conflict (i.e. mid-nineteenth century Europe from his vantage point) is about the bourgeoisie contending with the proletariat, he also described how the bourgeoisie has essentially struggled to defeat the feudal nobility. In the course of the history of the European countries, the feudal landlords were defeated or their grip on power at least dramatically weakened. Marx argued that the bourgeois traders and businessmen could take advantage of new technology and effective means of production, which implied increased income and well-being for this bourgeoisie. Greater wealth also implied that the hitherto uncontested position of the nobility was, in fact, challenged. In England, the nobility turned to capitalist farming techniques to keep up with the bourgeoisie (further explored in Barrington Moore’s (1966) classic study). But by becoming capitalist, the feudalist legacy was torn apart.

The key observation in this context is that elite conflict is a crucial historical aspect. It is possible to view the society in terms of multiple strands of conflict that appear side by side, interacting with each other, and producing interesting developments in society. On the one hand, there is a conflict between the mass of workers against the ruling class bourgeoisie and on the other hand there is a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the feudal lords, and the third line of conflict is that between and among different groups in the bourgeoisie. In the case of the Thai society, class conflict can undoubtedly be analyzed from all three vantage points, but I shall focus especially on the last two element 22, i.e. conflicts among elites, principally between bourgeois businessmen and between the ‘feudal’ monarch, king Bhumibol Adulyadej, his loyal military, and sections of the business elite, on the one hand, and the business elite around Thaksin Shinawatra, on the other hand. The exciting aspect of the Marxist class analysis for Thailand, is that Thailand may be precisely in such a revolutionary environment, where the old monarchic/military based rulers are replaced by the businessmen bourgeoisie led by Thaksin Shinawatra through their alliance with poor farmers and workers. This is a twist from the traditional capitalist-worker dichotomy, where capitalists and workers clash against each other rather than cooperate with each other. This inter-class coalition might be temporary until the conservative faction is weakened or defeated, but speculating on a splitting apart of the capitalists and workers is still somewhat premature. (For Marxist analyses on Thailand see Reynolds and Lysa 1983).

Another major social theorist on class and power is Max Weber (1978, 926-939). Weber laid out an explanatory framework of the sociology of power by setting up three categories for analysis: class, status and party. By economic class, Weber means the distribution of life chances among different people; their common economic interests in the form of posessing goods and acquiring opportunities for gaining income; and the condition of the labor market (ibid., 927). In this point, Weber is in agreement with Marx in that the class struggle between the capitalist and the laborer is the guiding social theme in the modern era. It is fairly obvious that in the capitalist system, the people, who are able to control the country’s profits tend to be more powerful and have more life chances, even if workers might be able to gain some victories from time to time. Class is an objective ascription by the social scientist, and exists even if there are conscious attempts by groups in society to deny its existence (cf. Gramsci 1999).23 Class is generally acted out in social situations, and is regulated with the help of the legal order (Weber 1978, 930). By status, Weber means the conferring of honor to a group or an individual, such as the king of a country, and does not need to overlap tightly with the ruling socio-economic order, though there is a historical tendency for wealth and status control to be the same (ibid, 932). A higher social status in society is usually connected with status privileges, i.e. “a monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities”, and include the privilege to wear special customes or to carry arms (ibid., 935). By parties, Weber refers to the action of persons aiming for social power for themselves in order to influence social action (ibid., 938). While this may include organizations, like churches or schools, they also include political parties and corporations. The goal of the leaders of organizations is conquest, domination and political control, making that enterprise very authoritarian (ibid., 939).

The Weberian theory can be readily applied to contemporary Thai politics (see Jacobs 1971; Maxwell 1975; Hewison 2013a for such a case). The class situation in Thailand also sees a clear dichotomy between capitalists and workers, even though the farmers that are still slightly more than 40% of the working population are also a significant force in Thai society. The working class, farmers and the poor in general are organized in so-called red shirts, and they had strongly protested the military-backed government led by Abhisit and the Democrat party (Hewison 2013a, 191). On the other hand, it is precisely the Democrat party, the conservative business elite, the monarchy, the military and the middle class professionals, who organize in the yellow shirts to oppose the red shirts. But the notable twist is that the red shirts do not have one of their own, a peasant or labor leader, running their organization, but a reformist businessman, Thaksin Shinawatra. When Thaksin was in power, he certainly did his best to enrich himself and his close friends, but he also worked to benefit the interests of the mass of the people that brought him to power in democratic elections. This situation angered the conservative ruling elite, who have been doing their best to prevent any expansion in democratic power.

Weber’s status groups are relevant in Thailand as well. The honorific and spiritual leader of the country is king Bhumibol, who may officially stand above politics, but who is really intervening in the national affairs by either condoning or condemning ruling governments and their policies or military coups. The notion has also been that since Thailand is a fairly fragile democracy, given the numerous military coups that happened, having a strong king has a very unifying impact on the larger Thai society. But the cracks on the status of the king are appearing with the rise of reformist leaders like Thaksin Shinawatra. It is undoubtedly true that the king, the military and other more conservative institutions can thrive best if there are no challenges that come from below. Businessmen may be able to do business, but the king has a large stake in those companies, establishing the supremacy of the king. Workers and farmers may do their work as they are told, but not more. Capitalism may be permitted, but the attendant social reforms are at best controlled or prevented. This may be the reason why the king had been so supportive of the different military coups in the past, because the military sees itself also as a fairly conservative group maintaining rule and order (cf. Chaloemtiarana 2007).

Thaksin has challenged the Thai political calculus in that by leveraging mass support from the countryside he has significantly empowered people below the king, and old unquestionable status of the king suddenly can become challenged. The lese majeste charges have become significant only when the Democrat party, that considers itself extremely loyalist, came to power, when it indicted several hundreds of Thaksin’s red shirts. Thaksin himself was condemned to a prison sentence in absentia due to, among others, lese majeste charges. To summarize, as the new reformists with their relatively lower social status inch their way to political power through the democratic vote, the older conservative circles, among others the king and the military, with their relatively higher social status are being threatened, and such state is the perfect condition for political conflict that can not easily be resolved by democratic elections. In addition, it might be precisely Thaksin’s lower status background, which makes his regime fairly unstable and subject to easy challenge from military and monarchy.

Class Relations and Politics in Thailand

This section of the paper is devoted to explain precisely how the class relations in Thailand affect the current political tensions there. One explanation of the current political tensions in Thailand is made by David Marx (2014). He argues that the country is divided into two ruling groups, who are vying for power. One group is called the ‘King’s group’, because they support the king. This group consists of conservative and traditionalist elites, involving large landowners, parts of the top military leaders (such as Sonthi, who was the chief general during the 2006 coup), and the owners of large banks, industry and enterprises in Thailand. Since these traditional elites are numerically small, they mobilize support from the upper middle classs, consisting of professionals, and small and medium sized business owners. These masses are what make up the ‘yellow shirt’ anti-government protestors (Marx 2014). They are an estimated 30% of the total population in Thailand (Xi 2013). Suthep spearheads this conservative faction (for his profile see Eimer 2013). The judiciary can also be included into the conservative king faction (Hewison 2013b). The reason why the king turned against Thaksin was because he thought Thaksin wanted to challenge the monarchy (Handley 2006). The influential and wealthy king has his wealth administered by the Crown Property Bureau, the largest landowner in Bangkok with large shares in the biggest corporations in the country, and that office influences the country behind the scenes.24 In addition, anti-Thaksin businessmen have also been opponents of the current regime. They principally do not criticize the lack of democratic principles by Thaksin and Yingluck, but the fact that they are excluded from favorable government policies (Ungpakorn 2010, 36-37).

The second political group are the reformist ‘new money group’, which is headed by the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. His group is relatively small, but his base of support are the majority of people, consisting of farmers and workers, who benefit from Thaksin’s social policies (Marx 2014), which will be outlined in the next section. Thaksin also uses his political power to grant himself economic privileges, but he is politically shrewd enough to give more access to resources for the poor farmers and workers, which grants him solid popular support. 70% of the population may be counted into the camp of the pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ (Xi 2013). Thaksin may be considered a ‘natural’ populist capable of converting fans into voter support (Hedman 2001; Thompson 2013, 72). It is this solid support that induces the current anti-government protestors, belonging to the conservative minority faction, to demand the imposition of an unelected ‘people’s council’ and the deposition of Yingluck from power, and it explains the coup against Thaksin in 2006. The coup against Thaksin had been described as a “coup of the rich against the interests of the poor” (Ungpakorn 2007). Poor voters appearing on the national stage were directly confronting elite interests (Thompson 2013, 76).

David Camroux (2014) also sees a conflict between at least two elite factions, but does not consider the king to be the major partisan player in Thai politics. King Bhumibol is considered a neutral referee, who adjudicates the inter-elite conflicts. Due to his long, uninterrrupted rule (since 1946), the king might even best be described as a unifying element in the country (Cooper 1995, 374). But due to his old age (86), he is not considered such an important player as he used to be. Camroux argues that the conflict among different elite groups emerged out of the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, initially involving high officials in the bureaucracy and the military, but since the 1970s increasingly among politically connected businessmen. My view is that Camroux is under-estimating the significance of the king in current political affairs, though there is some truth to the statement that other political factions, e.g. the military, the bureaucracy, and the businessmen, have been the major actors in the power struggle.

Camroux sees the inter-elite conflict taking place along different geographic lines. Geographically, the political power base had been in Bangkok (where most of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in), but starting in the 1980s more power shifted out of Bangkok. Thaksin has been a Sino-Thai tycoon based in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand) and was the major reformist figure, challenging the Bangkok-based business elite. Thaksin surely used his new-gained wealth to participate in politics beginning in the 1990s, but the real turning point occurred with the passage of the 1997 People’s Constitution, which outlawed patronage, vote buying, and corruption, while establishing stronger political parties with a German-based mixed electoral system that is partly party-list and partly single-member constituency-based.25 This new constitution allowed Thaksin to found his own party, the Thai Rak Thai party, run on a popular platform to advocate the interests of the common rural farmers and urban workers and receive a sufficient majority in parliament to become prime minister. Thaksin attained premiership in part to bolster his private wealth, but more importantly he carried out social programs to benefit the poor Thais, which angered the Bangkok-based elites and the middle class, who received military support to overthrow the Thaksin government in 2006.

John Girling (1996, Chapter 2 and 3) takes a more broader view on the current class structure in Thailand and sees four countervailing powers: civil society, consisting of the urban and professional middle class; military leaders, who are largely beyond parliamentary control (as the history of coup d’etats show); domestic and foreign businesses, who constrain political action based on their level of investment confidence; and money-seeking politicians. Each political faction will be analyzed in part.

Civil society consists of the middle class, which includes civil servants, academics, salaried employees of businesses, small businessmen, shopkeepers, and independent professionals. They have generally grown with economic development. It is the big businessmen, who dominate the parameters for the subordinate middle class, whose values consist of pragmatism, materialism, and individualism (Girling 1996, 43). There are workers too, but they are generally weakly organized thanks to technological innovation, precarious work conditions, a high labor mobility, unemployment (ibid., 47), and opposition from state power (Brown 2004, 113).26 On the other hand, since the 1990s there have been some labor protests to organize better health and safety measures in response to many job-related accidents and illnesses, especially among unskilled workers (ibid., 114). But in 2008, only 2% of the Thai workers were members of a labor union.27 In the decade since 2000 there had been an increase in the rate of profit from 5% to 11% to the detriment of worker wages, which declined as a share of national income (Mounier and Charoenloet 2010). While the middle class professionals mostly support the conservative opposition Democrat camp (Phongpaichit and Baker 2014), the working class is solidly backing the reformist Shinawatra government.28

Besides the workers, there is a class of peasants, who are described as a weak, unorganized entity and play only little role in the political process (Girling 1996, 50; Neher 1972; Scott 1985), resulting from the strictly hierarchical order in Thai society (Hanks 1962; Phillips 1966; Young 1968; Sharp and Hanks 1978). Karl Marx (1852, Chapter 7) had described farmers as a “sack of potatoes”, who generally command a very weak political-economic role, and the history of capitalism usually points to farmers as the losers of modernizing developments (e.g. Frieden 2006). The capitalist transformation of the countryside, indeed, undermined the material interests of the poor peasants. It led to a weakening in the moral authority of the wealthier peasants, as rational laws, property rights, coercion, patronage and market relationships increasingly pervade Thai society (Girling 1996, 51). But Andrew Walker (2012, 6) would disagree with this account of farmer weakness. He argues that there has been a rise in the so-called ‘middle-income peasants’, whose livelihoods are relatively secure, and who demand to have more political power. He explains the rise of pro-Thaksin forces in terms of the middle-income peasants as his supporters. This statement has to be qualified by the fact that most peasants are still poorer than the urban middle class. And contrary to Marxists’ observation of a squeezed peasantry, the farmers have benefited from state subsidies going as far back as the 1970s (ibid., 8). Hundreds of peasant unions had formed, and they formed protest groups that went to the capital of Bangkok to resist rising rents, interest rates, and foreclosures (ibid., 14). These actions indicate some organized political strength among the peasants. However, while 71% of the employment was in agriculture in 1980, this proportion has decreased to 40% in 201229, which implies a greater shift to the urban proletariat and a manufacturing and service-sector workforce (also cf. Aemkulwat 2010). And even though livelihoods in the rural north and north-east have generally improved, they still lag behind those in central and south Thailand (Walker 2012, 219-20).

The military had long been a political stronghold in Thailand. Its way of influence came through the control of the bureaucracy and lasted for half a century (Girling 1996, 25; Ungpakorn 2010). The military leaders have also benefited from owning state enterprises and banks, and receiving appointments to Thai-Chinese businesses (Cooper 1995, 379). Its most direct way of influencing the country’s politics was through the use of the coup d’etat (Girling 1996, 25). The military junta that then takes over generally gives first priority to maintaining their power and protecting corporate interests (ibid., also see Suksamran 1984). The military junta has generally been an opponent to democratic principles, even though public statements made them appear that they favored democracy (Cooper 1995, 378-9).30 From the late-1950s until the 1970s, repressive military regimes under Sarit Thanarat (prime minister 1957-63) and Thanom Kittakachorn (1963-73) ruled Thailand. During the student protests of 1973, the students defied military power, and ultimately weakened it (Girling 1996, 27), forcing its removal from power. Its power was further decisively weakened in 1988, when the government under Chatichai Choonhavan removed general Prem Tinsulanond from power (Ganesan 2004, 26). But only three years later, in 1991, the military under general Suchinda Krapayoon carried out a coup against the government, leading to the takeover of a caretaker government lasting one year. The Chuan Leekpai government that ruled from 1993 to 2001 with some interruption inbetween passed several reforms to curb military influence (ibid., 28). The last military coup occurred in 2006, when Thaksin’s popular administration was overthrown. Though the most recent coup is an indication of continued military influence in politics, a better educated, professional, and commercially successful middle class arose from the student protests of the 1970s, and they successfully demanded more liberal democratic rights and more restrictions on military power (Cooper 1995, 344).

Business leaders, who are mostly of ethnic Chinese origin, have played an increasing role in politics, because private sector businesses, especially in banking, and finance capital, account for much of the economic growth since the 1970s. There is a large degree of interlocking shareholding in trade and finance. As of the late 1980s, 220 of the 1,399 largest Thai companies were in banking, finance, and insurance holding 70% of the country’s gross domestic product. Banking capital is controlled by 16 corporate and family groups in 550 enterprises (Girling 1996, 31-32; Hewison 1989). With more economic concentration and with more perceived security about holding their wealth, bankers and industrialists increasingly asserted themselves politically (Siamwalla 1980), when prior to the 1970s, businesses were passive clients, submitting to the army general patrons in return for protection (Girling 1996, 32). Businessmen made up an increasing share of the government cabinet and province and municipal councils, lessening the share of career bureaucrats (Girling 1996, 33; Hewison and Thongyou 1993; Nicro 1993). Many businessmen join the government to secure and cement their property-holdings (Girling 1996, 36). The Shinawatra family is the leading exponent of the reformist business elite, though parts of that elite may also fall in the conservative camp. King Bhumibol also features prominently as a business owner. The Royal family owns banking, finance, property and industry businesses (Hewison 2004, 239).

In what Girling (1996) referred to as ‘money politics’, he refers to the tight connection between government officials and private-sector businessmen. Politicians need campaign donations from private-sector businessmen in order to stay in power, and businessmen advance the money in the expectation of larger payback in the form of favorable tax policies (35-36; also cf. Dhiravegin 1992). It is ironically the co-existence of capitalism (profit-motive) and democracy (more requirement for political competition funded by private campaign funding), which requires politicians to listen to the interests of businessmen rather than of the people, leading to corruption (Girling 1996, 39). Even worse, with the entry of businessmen into politics, and their founding of political parties (like Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai), businessmen’s dependence on traditional politicians decrease, which implies complete business domination over Thai politics (Pathmanand 1998, 2001). Under the helm of Thaksin, ‘money politics’ turned into ‘big money politics’ (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 356).

The general observation in Thai politics is that its political party system is only weakly institutionalized (Huntingon 1968; Mainwaring 1968; Randall and Svasand 2002; Bjarnegard 2013, 143), and can not easily be compared to Western political parties that are based on ideology (McCargo 1997). Thai political parties are not mass membership parties, and do not have active and participating party branches (McCargo 1997; Ockey 2003, 2004; Bjarnegard 2013, 144). The prevailing organization of Thai politics is clientelism, which is “the exchange of personal favors for political support” (Scott 1969; Lemarchand and Legg 1972; Bratton and van de Walle 1997; Piattoni 2001; Tripp 2001; Bjarnegard 2013, 144). Clientelistic practices generally make the political system more predictable in an otherwise unpredictable environment (Bjarnegard 2013, 145).

The implication is that, overall, Thailand’s society is driven by the elites, who have the political and economic resources to gain their favors and shape the agenda. The common people, farmers and workers, are relegated to the role of the followers of either ruling faction. With the exception of a short time period from 1973-76 when students, workers and even professionals demanded a constitutional reform, common Thai people have no influence on their nation’s government (Girling 1981, 92) despite claims for a democratic system. People of lower status and organizational ties generally accept their status of inferiority (Girling 1996, 26). The lack of political power of the masses is also reflected in the economic inequality within the country. Thailand is currently the 12th most unequal country in the world, and is the most unequal ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) country (Chin 2013). As I argue, the entrenched political elite generally resists any moves to redistribute wealth and reduce the income/wealth gap. But the division into two elite factions indicates that there is some potential for redistribution, because the reformist Shinawatra faction is is quite willing to strengthen the rural poor even if for electoral reasons and reasons of personal enrichment. It is the conservative opposition faction that is strategically losing out by resisting any changes in wealth distribution. On the other hand, it is rather unlikely that Shinawatra, after all one of the richest families in Thailand, would give up their own wealth, nor would they want to alienate influential property-holders, such as investors, who could take their capital out of Thailand in a matter of minutes. Two competing elite factions may have some positive consequences for the poor population, but they may contribute little to narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor in the absence of larger modes of activism among the poor in Thailand.

An examination of the electoral map of 2011 (Figure 1) shows quite clearly the political cleavage in the country. While the northern and north-eastern section of the country are Shinawatra backers, the south and the west are Democrats (conservative faction). Bangkok, which is much wealthier than the rural northeast (see Girling 1981, 87), is largely controlled by the Democrats. Since the northern and eastern portions of the country are more populous than the western and southern portion, there is a structural advantage for Shinawatra. Yingluck (Pheu Thai Party) received 48% of the vote compared to 35% going to Abhisit (Democrat). Yingluck’s party won the election, even though her brother had been removed from office just a few years earlier. This implies some fundamental changes in rural society and the electoral strength of the peasant masses, who can determine the political outcomes amid the two contending elite factions (e.g. Walker 2012).


Figure 1: Electoral Map in Thailand Parliamentary Elections 2011 (Pheu Thai party in red, Democrat party in blue). Source: Wikipedia

A consideration of the different levels of wealth in the different regions of Thailand is also fairly instructive (Figure 2). Most of the nation’s wealth is geographically concentrated in the center around Bangkok, which is where much of the conservative oppositionis claiming its base (green and dark green shaded areas). Bangkok’s GDP per capita was $15,830 per capita in 2011. Rayong, which is to the southeast of Bangkok is the richest province with $40,277 in GDP per capita, largely thanks to the rise of the car manufacturing sector in that province (Mellor and Suwannakij 2013). Poor people are concentrated in the northern, but especially in the northeastern part of the country. In the northeastern provinces, GDP per capita was less than $1,500 in 2011 (red shaded areas). The poor are solid reformist and Thaksin supporters, and the wealthy are conservative supporters (for Thai people’s voting patterns see Hewison 2013a, 193-4).

Figure 2: Thai Provinces by GDP per capita in US$ in 2011. National Average is $5,632. Source: Wikipedia

   < $1,500

   $1,500 – < 3,000

   $3,000 – < 5,362

   $5,362 – < 10,000

   $10,000 – < 15,000

   $15,000 – < 20,000

   >$ 20,000+


Social and Economic Policies Since the 1990s

In order to understand the full implications of the class nature of Thai politics, it will be important to review again Thailand’s history, its social and economic policies since the 1990s, and the actions of the Thaksin regime from 2001 to 2006, and the institutional framework guiding these policies, paying particular attention to the class implications of these policies.

Institutionally, the Thai economy has been built on cheap labor, a stable government, and a reasonably well maintained infrastructure. Weak environmental and labor safety regulations were another major source of attraction for foreign investments in the country, which would permit flourishing economic development. Cheap labor could be held cheap due to a lack of public investments in social services, pensions and health insurance (Terwiel 2011, 282-3). Thailand’s institutional framework was to keep the cost of doing business down in order to attract foreign investments, even if that meant accepting growing income inequality and continued disadvantage for the nation’s poor people. This framework is conducive to the populist policies, promulgating the interests of the poor, of Thaksin Shinawatra in the early-2000s.

But laying out the institutional context is not enough to explain the rise of Thaksin to political power. A particular set of economic circumstances made Thaksin’s turn to populism more favorable. The major economic event that dominated Thai politics in the 1990s was the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which hit Thailand particularly hard. Prior to that Thailand was celebrated as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The growth in real GDP from 1987 to 1996 was about 10% per year (Vines and Warr 2003, 440). In these boom years, the Bank of Thailand pegged the nation’s currency, the baht, to the US dollar and encouraged domestic lenders and banks to borrow huge sums of money from abroad and lend it at a higher interest rate to domestic borrowers. These foreign loans allowed businesses in Thailand to expand, properties to be purchased, and stocks to be acquired. A bubble developed, which began to cause problems as many borrowers became unable to repay the mounting debt burden. The accumulation of bad loans, and the Thai peg to the stable US dollar forced the Bank of Thailand to draw down their currency reserves to pay off foreign investors, to whom the loan was originally owed to.

Foreign investors observed the rise in non-performing loans in Thailand, and speculated that the Bank of Thailand does not have enough currency reserves to service their loans. When investors en masse sold their loans, the investors’ prediction became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the Bank of Thailand could impossibly pay back all the loans. On July 25, 1997, the Thai government was forced to abandon the baht peg on the dollar, and devalue the baht. Investors panicked and dumped their loans in the other Asian economies finding themselves in a similar economic situation, such as in Indonesia and the Philippines, and they were also pulled into the financial crisis. Many troubled Thai banks had to call in their loans and declare losses on the savings of depositors, which forced many businesses into bankruptcy. A devalued currency implied more expensive imports, and a lowering in living standards. The standard of living in Thailand declined by 25% in 1997 (for a summary of the Asian financial crisis in Thailand cf. Balaam and Veseth 2008, 159-161). The positive consequence of baht devaluation was an increase in exports, which accounted for much of the economic recovery in the 2000s (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 127). Some banks were merged, others were dissolved, but a few years after the crisis, the banks are performing better than during the crisis (Chansarn 2005). The Democrat Party used state funds that were raised by taxing the poor to pay off the non-performing loans after the 1997 financial crisis (Ungpakorn 2007, 27). A total of 1.2 trillion baht of public money was set aside to save the Thai banking system (Ungpakorn 2010). An IMF bailout plan was accompanied by some structural adjustment, which involved principally a lowering of domestic consumption and living standards and imports, and attempts to increase export with the help of a devalued currency. But empirical research shows that due to obstacles like investments in the wrong sector and decline in regional demand export did not really increase immediately after the crisis, which meant that the majority of the adjustment costs came out of a lowering in domestic living standards (Dollar and Hallward-Driemeier 2000).

These class-conscious government and IMF-induced policies had negative consequences on the living standards of Thai workers. Thailand’s unemployment rate had increased to 8% in 1999. The government withheld contributions to the social insurance fund of private-sector workers, and prevented the passage of an unemployment insurance bill (Ungpakorn 2010). Workers were facing a 12.6% decline in earnings in the first half of 1998, and a a 4.4% decline in hours in the same time period (Kakwanee and Po-tong 1998). Health authorities also reported an increase in underweight children born to low income mothers during the crisis. The number of children dropping out of school also increased during the crisis (Ungpakorn 2010).

It was in the context of austerity for the poor, that Thaksin’s political campaign on behalf of the poor could gain traction (Ungpakorn 2010; Terwiel 2011, 287). Thaksin was a billionaire, who received tremendous help in finding his connections through his influential family (Terwiel 2011, 287; Phongpaichit and Baker 2009).31 Thaksin worked first as a police officer, and gradually acquired his riches by acquiring monopoly rights over mobile phone networks through contracts with government organizations (Terwiel 2011, 287). The 1980s and 1990s weere a very favorable environment for the Sino-Thai businessmen’s economic and political advancement (Ungpakorn 2010). Thaksin soon joined politics in 1995 as Deputy prime minister and in charge of the Phalang Tham Party. In 1998, he founded his own party, the Thai Rak Thai, which promptly gained 248 of the 500 parliamentary seats in the 2001 elections, elevating him to premiership (Terwiel 2011, 288). Thaksin has an easy time getting smaller parties on board to form a 350 seat strong coalition government. The smaller parties were simply bought into acquiscence due to Thaksin’s enormous private fortunes. Thaksin’s wealth and patronage also bought tacit support from the military, the business and banking elite. (Ganesan 2004, 30-31). Thaksin ran on the popular platform of improving city infrastructure, creating an affordable, universal medical insurance system, increasing subsidies into the rural areas, privatizing state companies and fighting the war on drugs (Terwiel 2011, 288).

His political philosophy was to run the country like a business, rather than like a bureaucracy. He wanted to accelerate economic development by promoting domestic capital while attracting foreign investments. Wealth should be spread with a “new social contract”, i.e. welfare and credit for the poor. Opposition shall be absorbed into his party or eliminated. Authority needs to be centralized within the government. Media, intellectuals and civil society should be controlled and dispersed to prevent political turmoil. The society shall be disciplined with cultural campaigns (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 355). His economic philosophy was to shift from a purely cheap labor model to a model that supports stronger internal demand and entrepreneurship (ibid., 104). Successful economic development for Thailand also meant an increase in state infrastructure investments, for which he set side 2.4 trillion baht (ibid., 127). Thaksin also thought that bringing in peasants and the poor into the market system would be crucial in maintaining development (ibid., 129). Support for rural areas was crucial from an electoral standpoint, because by fostering local elites and warlords (jao pho) in rural areas, Thaksin expected to choke off the political influence of his opposition (Ganesan 2004, 31). Support for the poor also had the objective of strengthening consumption. Besides a universal health insurance scheme, Thaksin also implemeneted cheap life insurance, low-cost housing, cheap computers and television, credit for buying taxis, loans for bicycle purchases (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 107). The downside of a loan-heavy policy was a substantial increase in private household indebtedness (ibid., 108-9, 130). Besides his popular campaign platform, Thaksin also benefited from a strong anti-incumbent mood following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which hit Thailand particularly hard (ibid., 29)

Political observers and members of the opposition had denounced Thaksin’s effort for being overly populist and unrealistic to implement, but against all predictions Thaksin’s policies were successful. Medical care for the poor was implemented, subsidies for rural communities were increased and small entrepreneuers received more credit (Terwiel 2011, 288). He created a village fund and the ‘one Tambon, one Product’ campaign, which are rural subsidies from the government (Ungpakorn 2007, 24). The middle class and the conservative oligarchs may have been opposed to expanding medical care to the poor, but the billionaire Thaksin pushed through his agenda to endear himself to the rural poor, who enthusiastically supported his government.

When a major earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia struck on December 26, 2004, Thailand’s west coast was hit with huge waves, 5,400 people died and another 2,850 went missing (Terwiel 2011, 289). But Thaksin’s response was swift, ordering and mobilizing emergency units, cutting through red tape and avoiding delays. In the following election on February 6, 2005, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won 374 of the 500 seats compared to the Democrats’ 96 seats. Thaksin used the parliamentary majority for his own benefit by exempting certain businesses, including his own, from paying income taxes, thus saving him $600 million in taxes (ibid., 290). Thaksin did serve his poor constituency, but he also used his political office for personal enrichment. Besides this, Thaksin was also attacked for his sharp anti-drug operations, which led to the death of 2,500 people (Cropley 2006). In the Tak Bai incident, Thaksin had deployed the military to disperse anti-government protestors in southern Thailand, leading to the death of about 90 people.32

Besides promoting populist policies for farmers, Thaksin was also a staunch supporter of big business (Ungpakorn 2007, 16). He also negotiated a free trade agreement with the US (Ahearn and Morrison 2005), which Thai critics allege to work against the interests of Thailand’s farmers by reducing tariffs on farm products, and against poor patients, who have to spend more money over a longer period on patent-right protected US drugs.33 It did not pass, because Thaksin was deposed, and the next government did not conclude the negotiations. Thaksin was also a staunch supporter of the privatization of state industries, which he thought would reduce the state budget burden and create some revenues for his government programs. The state oil company PTT was privatized under Thaksin’s rule, though protestors demand it to be re-nationalized (Cartalucci 2013). During that privatization some of Thaksin’s cronies acquired large holdings of the oil company (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 120).

The conservative opposition became impatient with Thaksin’s rule, and resented his pro-poor policies (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 357). Enormous protests were organized by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which had its base in the south and in Bangkok, especially among wealthy people, Democrat party politicians, conservative factions of police, military, academics, doctors and lawyers (Terwiel 2011, 291). Small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, NGO’s, civil society groups, state enterprise union activists, old democracy activists, journalists, intellectuals, poets, musicians and artists also supported PAD and opposed Thaksin (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 357). The movement was led and financed by the media tycoon Sondhi Limtongkul (Ungpakorn 2007, 34). This strong opposition caused Thaksin to call out early elections for April 2006 (Terwiel 2011, 291). But because the judicial court had discovered an irregularity in the ballot box, the April election was considered null and void, and new elections were called out for October 2006. In September, Thaksin travelled to New York for a UN plenary session, but the military carried out the coup during his absence from home (ibid., 292). In economic terms, Thaksin’s fall implied a slump in economic growth. GDP growth in 2007 was 4.5%, which was lowerr than in other comparable Asian countries such as Vietnam, China or India (Nidhiprabha 2009, 173).

What follows is an evaluation of the policies of Thaksin’s successors, especially those of prime minister Surayud, Abhisit and Yingluck. Under the Surayud regime, which was overseen by the military junta, the 30 baht treatment fee in the universal health care scheme was scrapped, at least for the very poor. But in return funds for health care were dramatically slashed, while military spending increased drastically (Ungpakorn 2007, 17). The latter move is not surprising since the military had lost influence, power and money during decades of parliamentary rule (Phongpaichit and Baker 2009, 359). Under the tutelage of the military, the government also passed a significant increase in the salary of the junta.34 The interim government of Surayud displayed a clear preference for propping up the military, while hurting the poor constituency of Thaksin. This political consellation may, in part, explain the continued popularity of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, which was banned and later reconstituted as People’s Power Party (Terwiel 2011, 293).

Infrastructure and education spending were curtailed under the Democrat government (Nidhiprabha 2009, 187). Surayud carried out a merger of the state telecom companies TOT and CAT.35 It repealed an excise tax for telecom use, which was implemented by Thaksin.36 In the field of education, Surayud cancelled Thaksin’s one laptop a child program, which would have given a laptop to every school child, citing this expense to be ‘unrealistic’.37 Surayud also cancelled Thaksin’s plans to install PCs in every public secondary school in Thailand.38 Thaksin’s scholarship program for poor families was expanded with income eligibility requirements increasing from 100,000 baht to 150,000 baht.39 In terms of economic policy, in 2007, Surayud created the first budget deficits since 2003, involving 146 billion baht. But the government blames the deficit on the rice subsidies and health care program for the poor approved by Thaksin.40 Consequently, the new government cancelled the subsidies for the rice farmers, a key constituency for Thaksin. Rice prices were lowered.41 In response to farmer protests, the government added debt-relief measures for farmers.42 Surayud also cancelled the Million Cows project, which lent cows to farmers, who could make money from selling the cow milk.43 The baht appreciated in value, which the government addressed with capital controls. But Thai stocks had lost $22 billion in value as a result of the controls (Wong and Boey 2006). Despite foreign protests, Surayud amended the Foreign Business Act to limit media, telecom and aviation firms from having more than 50% foreign ownership.44 Surayud approved of Thaksin’s plans to expand the mass transit rail system.45 Censorship of the internet and other means of communication increased under Surayud, even more so than under Thaksin.46 In December 2006, Surayud set up a 14,000 troop secret military division to crack down on anti-government activities.47

Despite all the efforts by the military and the Council for National Security to discredit Thaksin’s faction, the first elections since the coup went to the PPP led by Samak Sundaravej (Terwiel 2011, 294). Significant anti-government protests led the PPP to depose him in September 2008, and replace him with Somchai Wongsawat (ibid., 296). In the ensuing protests, Chaovarat Chanveerakul became interim prime minister, and several PPP politicians broke ranks to support the Democrat, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to become prime minister. The three prime ministers, Samak, Somchai and Chaovarat, served too short time periods in office to evaluate their policies.

Abhisit Vejjajiva’s first duty in office was to address the economic crisis, which had led to a significant increase in the unemployment rate in Thailand, with two rounds of stimulus packages. The first round passed in January 2009, and involved a scheme where 2,000 baht checks were handed out to people making less than 15,000 baht per month.48 A second stimulus program in May injected 1.4 trillion baht into the economy through government infrastructure spending.49 The ‘Ton Kla A-cheep’ program is a training for 500,000 unemployed graduates.50 The government also passed a 15-year free education guarantee for students.51 Seniors, who previously had no pension, were eligible to receive 500 baht per month in pension money.52 Abhisit also passed a farmer’s income guarantee by negotiating with farmers an adequate income for farmers, and if the market price of the crop was lower than the negotiated income, then government funds would be used to pay farmers for the difference.53 Under a loan re-negotiation scheme, poor farmers, who were trapped with high-interest lenders, would be able to shift their loans to formal financial institutions at lower interest rates.54 Abhisit subsidized the price of diesel, gas and electricity by reducing the excise tax on them and spending down the nation’s oil fund.55 The most frugal 30 million households in terms of electricity consumption were given free electricity, which implied a subsidy from commercial and industrial users.56 Toward the end of Abhisit’s term, the government passed a permanent subsidy for free bus and train rides.57 Abhisit also suggested building a high-speed rail connection with China.58 Under Abhisit, the number of websites that were blocked by the government had increased to over 50,000.59 Military spending had continued to climb under Abhisit, having doubled from 2006 to 2009 (from $2.4 billion to $4.8 billion) (McCartan 2010).

These policies were fairly progressive, and were summarized as the ‘people’s agenda’. Abhisit’s political intention was clear: the Democrat party is suffering from an electoral disadvantage, because it traditionally stuck to policies exclusively favoring the affluent to the neglect of rural groups. In order to gain more electoral support, especially the poor farmers in the north-east, who harbored about one third of the total Thai population, and were swaying any democratic election in the country, Abhisit has to appeal to those farmers with policies and handouts to benefit that constituency (cf. Hewison 2013a, 185-6).60 This structural political dynamic is fairly exciting, because either party has to win the support of the farmers to win an election. But it does not seem like the voters were buying it. Benefiting farmers and the poor was also undergirded by significant crackdowns, as the number of lese majeste cases targeted at pro-Thaksin red shirts increased from 5 per year to 100 per year since the fall of Thaksin (International Crisis Group 2011). The red shirt protests against Abhisit kept on intensifying, and the 90 people that the military had murdered under order from the Abhisit government, created sufficient public outrage to guarantee the political novice, Yingluck Shinawatra, a majority of the votes in the July 3, 2011 parliamentary elections.

Yingluck Shinawatra’s electoral strategy was very much in the spirit of her older brother, who had persuaded Yingluck to run for office: an emphasis on capitalist growth, but with a priority for developing the poorer north and north-eastern constituency. Yingluck’s premiership meant a government subsidy program for the 17 million rice farmers in Thailand. This measure has made Thailand’s rice exports somewhat less competitive due to the higher prices for the export markets. Yingluck’s government also increased the minimum wage to $10 a day; and fueled the property boom through a $64 billion infrastructure investment scheme, involving among others the building of high-speed rail to cut down on cross-country travel time. Yingluck has also been pushing for a EU-style common market with the other ASEAN countries by reducing border control on trade (Mellor and Suwannakij 2013). Yingluck’s populist policies had been criticized for benefiting a small share of the population, a clientele. A subsidy for first-time car buyers is said to benefit relatively more affluent people and the car producers rather than the poor. Traffic congestion is said to increase as a result of car subsidies (Warr 2013). But aside from this criticism, Yingluck rules Thailand in the spirit of Thaksin. While business interests are served by Yingluck, the poor, the farmers and the workers also receive significant benefits. The snap elections that are set for February 2, 2014, predict an easy victory for the Pheu Thai party. As long as the military does not meddle again in politics, as it did in 2006, Yingluck will continue to remain in office.61 As long as democracy holds in Thailand, Thaksin’s pro-poor, reformist agenda is prevailing, despite the conservative opposition.


The current paper has shown that the dynamic class relations in Thailand offer some useful perspectives on the current political struggle taking place on the streets of Thailand. Rather than seeing a discontent minority in opposition, which views itself overwhelmed and steamrolled by a majority led by reformist business elites Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, I observe an active class struggle between two elite factions in Thailand, who are vying for political supremacy. This is a twist from the classic Marxist and Weberian account of class conflict between workers and capitalists, because in Thailand the struggle takes place among elites, whereby the workers and the farmers principally support one elite faction, the reformists. They stand in opposition to the conservative minority, which has supporters among some businessmen, the monarchy, the military, and the professional middle class. The capitalist-worker paradigm is still an underlying feature of the class struggle (e.g. Brown 2004; Ungpakorn 2007), but it is strongly mediated by the two elite factions that immediately contend for political power.

The conservative faction, which is backed by the king, the military junta, wealthy businessmen outside Thaksin’s inner circle, a professional middle class and some other entrepreneurs, is the minority opposition movement. Their interest is to keep the power and the wealth in the capital and prevent a further political empowerment of the rural masses, mainly workers and peasants. As the minority opposition they are forced with their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, to use protests on the street in order to impose the kind of the rule that they see fit, currently in the form of the unelected “people’s council”.

On the other hand, there has been a reformist business group, led by Thaksin and now Yingluck Shinawatra, and receiving the electoral backing of the poor farmers and workers especially from the populous north and north-east part of the country. Thaksin had promised economic development that would benefit the elites as well as the masses, and that had been a fairly effective popular strategy to take over political power. The conservative elites have certainly not been very elated about this power shift that Thaksin’s populist movement has created. The conservatives can simply not afford to support democratic elections, because the farming and working class majority guarantees electoral victory to the reformist Pheu Thai party. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, in turn, has a strong interest to maintain democratic principles in Thailand. This situation of intense elite political tensions bolstered by mass mobilization (red vs yellow shirts) makes democracy in Thailand inherently unstable, but there are few escape routes that can be offered. The election on February 2 might bring back the necessary legitimacy and, therefore, political stability in Thailand. But a stable democracy requires a political culture that is highly tolerant of the rule of law and accepting of the current ruling political faction.

Currently, there is no such elite consensus in Thailand. The old conservative powers led by the military have been doing their best to reverse democratic gains, and, alternatively, they have tried to undercut the Shinawatra support base by buying off voters with generous social policies, such as Abhisit did it. They have done so with astoundingly little success. Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s grip on power remain fairly solid. Dialectically speaking, the conservative powers have to make significant concessions, political as well as economic, to the working masses if they have an interest to ever return back to power. The upward economic trajectory of Thailand in particular and Southeast Asia in general has the implication, on the one hand, that the average Thai person will be better off, and will be better able to independently assert their political and economic rights, perhaps even without the Shinawatra clan, and on the other hand, might imply- at least in the short-run- a wider wealth gap between rich and poor, which the poor Thai people will become less and less tolerant of. The enormous political mobilization of the red shirts has made the workers and farmers conscious about their political rights in a way that had not existed before and can no longer be suppressed. The most effective elite faction is the one that capitalizes on the rise of the Thai working class and a support for the farmers- as shown by Thaksin Shinawatra. The last remaining venerable and undisputed entity of Thailand, king Bhumibol, himself is showing signs of decline, and the public is speculating tongue-in-cheek what would happen if the 86-year old king passes away. Whether the king’s death will be an important indicator of change is subject to debate, yet the fact that social change is already happening in Thailand is undisputed. The question for further research remains how fast these social changes will occur, and in whose interest.


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Image Source:

Figure 1: Election Map: Wikipedia. “Thai General Elections 2011.”,_2011

Figure 2: GDP Map: Wikipedia. “List of Thai Provinces by GPP.”

1A brief review of the Shinawatra family a business and politically powerful family for four generations now, originating from China, can be read in New Mandela. “The Shinawatra Family Tree.” . Pathmanand (1998, 67-69) and Phongpaichat and Baker (2004) are also fairly instructive. For a review of Chinese political and economic influence in Thailand, readLandon (1973); Chantavanich (1997);Yeung (1999).

2Nation. “Statement from the Administrative Reform Council.” September 20.

3Washington Post. “Around the World. Thailand: Ousted Premier Ends Attempt to Get Job Back.” September 13.

4Bangkok Post. “UDD Leader Admits Protest Funds Come from Thaksin.” May 18.

5Forbes. “Thaksin Shinawatra and Family.” Some estimates put his net worth far lower at about $500 million due to a series of asset freezes by UK and US authorities and trading losses. Asia One Plush. “Thaksin Down to His Last $500 Million?” January 27, 2014.

6Bangkok Pundit. “Polls Show Yingluck is Most Popular Prime Minister – Part 2.” Asian Correspondent, August 17, 2011.

7BBC. “Thailand Opposition to Protest Amnesty Bill.” October 30, 2013.

8BBC. “Former Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva Charged with Murder.” December 12, 2013.

9Nation. “Suthep: Clear Message from People for Yingluck to Step Down.” December 22, 2013.

10Bangkok Post. “Poll: Most Want End to Protests.” November 13, 2013.

11Channel News Asia. “Thai Red Shirt Activists Plan Rallies to Counter Bangkok Shutdown.” January 10, 2014.

12Nation. “Occupy State Offices: Suthep.” Nocember 27, 2013.

13Bangkok Post. “Updated Toll: 4 Dead, 57 Wounded.” December 1, 2013.

14Xinhua. “Thai Protest Leader Explains Demand for ‘People’s Council’.” December 4, 2013.

15Bangkok Post. “Prayuth Says Army Neutral.” November 30.

16Bangkok Post. “Yingluck Requests Military Help to Run the Election.” January 23.

17ABC, AP. “Thai Protesters Block Poll Stations in Bangkok.” January 25, 2014.

18Bangkok Post. “Baht Declines to a Three-Year Low.” December 23.

19Investvine. “Thai Crisis: Severe Impact on Economy, Bourse.” January 7.

20 New York Times, Reuters. “Thai Protesters March on, Defiant after Grenade Attack.” January 18, 2014

21Political Prisoners in Thailand. “Abhisit and Suthep to Face Corruption Charges.”

22There are certainly scholars, who would vehemently disagree and stress capital-labor conflicts in Thailand, e.g. Brown (2004), Ungpakorn (2007).

23Weber writes that “a class does not in itself constitute a group (Gemeinschaft). To treat “class” conceptually as being equivalent to “group” leads to distortion.” (Weber 1978, 930).

25Also cf. Thailand Law Forum. “Demands for Reform Taking Shape.”

26Under Thai labor law, workers in the private-sector are generally allowed to join a union, but there are severe restrictions to membership. The union is tied to the employer, and if the union worker loses his job, he loses his union membership. The numerous migrant workers are barred from joining and forming a union, and state-owned workers have a hard time being part in a union. Migrants must ask their employers to change their jobs or else they may be fired, blacklisted and deported. Employers tend to ignore labor laws, because they fire workers, who are eligible to join a union and take steps to attain it. Fines for wrongful dismissal are under $300. Jail sentences for firing union workers has never been enforced. Workers, who get severance pay, are often not reinstated. Human trafficking involving labor, and a poor world economic development have further weakening impacts on unions.

27Solidarity Center, AFL-CIO. “Thailand.”

28Independent. “Thailand Anti-Government Protests: 31 People Injured in Bangkok Blast.” Janaury 17, 2014.

29World Bank. “Employment in Agriculture (% of total employment).” (1980); (2012)

30General Chavalit, for example, said , “…the army wil, fight against ill practices and injustices in the political, social, and economic spheres… in order to build, as the Thai people always wish, a perfect democratic system of government.” (cited in Bunbongkarn 1987, 68)

31A full assessment of the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in business and politics can be read in

32Justice for Peace Foundation. “The Outrage of Tak Bai.” October 25, 2010.

33Sajin Prachason. “Thailand=US Free Trade Agreement. ‘Whatever We Have to Sacrifice’.”

34Nation. “Junta Gets Fat-Cat Allowances.” November 8, 2006.

35Nation. “Call for End to Policy Corruption.” October 16, 2006.

36Nation. “Telecom Excise Tax Revoked.” January 24, 2007.

37Bangkok Post. “Education Ministry Axes 3 Schemes.” November 28, 2006.

38Bangkok Post. “Education Ministry Axes 3 Schemes.” November 28, 2006.

39Bangkok Post. “Scholarship Scheme to Continue.” January 5, 2007.

40Nation. “Massive Loss from Thaksin Projects.” November 15, 2006.

41Nation. “Pridiyathorn Explains Sufficiency Economy Concept to Investors.” November 10, 2006.

42Nation. “Cabinet Approves Debt-Relief Measures for Farmers.” January 16, 2007.

43Bangkok Post. “Ministry Scraps One-Million-Cows Project.” November 29, 2006.

44Nation. “Kularb Kaew is Nominee under Revised Act.” Jaunary 9, 2007.

45Nation. “Govt Set to Unveil 5 Rapid Rail Lines.” Nocember 6. 2006.

46Freedom Against Censors Thailand. “RSF: Thailand- Annual Report 2007.” February 5, 2007.

47Nation. “Secret Military Division Deployed.” December 27, 2006.

48MCOT. “Bt2,000 Cheque Dispersals End at Bangkok City Hall.” March 28, 2009.

50ChuaiChart, Stimulus Package 1, 7 October 2010

51Bangkok Post. “15yrs of Free Education Programme Launched.” March 18, 2009.

52Social Security Online, International Update, September 2009

53ChannelNewsAsia, [9] Thai rural farmers benefit from new income guarantee programme, 4 May 2010

54AARoadsthailand Group Forum, [20] PM to inaugurate informal debt restructuring scheme on 19 Nov, 18 November 2009

55The Nation, Korn defends diesel tax reductions, 19 April 2011

57Nation. “Gov to Extend Subsidies until July.” February 23, 2011.

59Bangkok Post. “Last One in, Again.” January 6, 2010.

60Economist. “Beware the Watermelons.” December 29.

61Guardian, Reuters. “Thailand’s PM Stands Firm on Election Plan.” January 15, 2014.

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One Response to Anti-Government Protests In Thailand: A Political Sociology of Elite and Class Conflict

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