We received an exclusive paper by renowned Thailand historian B. J. Terwiel on the current Thai strife of colors. The original is a small book in size. So here’s an abstract with Terwiel’s four main points: 1) Background on Thailand’s Tangled Political Situation; 2) Parallels in the Past (does Sarit ring a bell?); the 3) Symbolic Values of Some Colors in Traditional Thai Culture; and a careful 4) Prognosis.
“Baas” Terwiel’s disciplinary base is cultural history. His latest publication A Traveler in Siam in the Year 1655 was published by Silkworm in 2008. If you thought you know what was and what is going on in Thailand, Terwiel adds some new perspectives and explains connections you may not yet be aware of. Chapters 2), 3) and 4) are the essential reading. But even if you know the background, why omit the intro:
1) Dutchman Terwiel describes former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who’s at the center of it all, as “effective and drastic.” Surprisingly most of his election promises were fulfilled – and financed by a booming economy. Much money went into the communes, the granting of loans was eased and Thaksin reacted “immediately and effectively” to crises such as the anti-Thai riots in Cambodia or the tsunami.
By Barend Jan Terwiel
Thaksin made use of the “exceptionally democratic” constitution of 1997 by transforming the political system for his own good. Success became his friend, he won another election even more clearly and filled even more bureaus with friends and party loyalists. The former elite, who wasn’t part of Thaksin’s friends, anxiously witnessed the old benefice disappear.
The anti-Thaksin guard consisting of parts of the military, old families, monarchists and many intellectuals not only rejected Thaksin because of corruption allegations. Thaksin was clumsy in public and towards the international press when speaking with his funny English. For many he became an embarrassment and allegations of vote buying were certainly justified. That didn’t diminish his popularity among the common people, as this is how the Thai political system functioned and still functions.
During his second term as prime minister Thaksin sold his mobile phone business to Singapore – immediately after he had forced a law through parliament freeing him of all taxes. The tax exemption saved him some 600 million U.S. dollars. Clear thing that he blatantly abused his position for own personal gain.
The first wave of protests was launched by Thammasat University, traditionally the moral conscience of Thailand. Thaksin got cold feet and quickly held an election that was boycotted by the opposition and annulled by a court. The army staged a coup and prepared for new elections. Thaksin’s loyalists won again, but two nominees of Thaksin – Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat – were forced out of office by a combination of bizarre court rulings and street protests of the yellow shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy PAD.
The event since then with the airport blockades, judicial double standards and the bloody Songkran are known to everyone, so let’s proceed to
2) Parallels in the Past:
In 1957 Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat (also: Dhanarajata) had staged an unbloody coup d’ètat. He invalidated the constitution and ruled until death in 1963 by decree. The generals Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathian were his vice-dictators.
The democratically educated elite was outraged, the international media critical and disgusted. Because of his corruption and immoral personal conduct history doesn’t judge Sarit nicely. But what is ignored by most is that the general population mostly liked the dictator. It was appreciated that there were more no parliamentary debates and no face-losing compromises. People loved clear guidelines.
For instance back at that time there were too many overinsured buildings destroyed by fires. Sarit ruled that whenever an overinsured factory burns down the owner of that building has to be executed. After a first death sentence owners quickly took pains with protecting their premises against arsonists …
Thaksin’s harsh war against drugs was not unsimilar: populist and easily understood, but apparently effective. Sarit for himself was educated in Thailand and clumsy when dealing with foreigners. His own people though he understood – while the monstrosity of his corruption only became apparent after his death.
The intellectuals back then were helpless to do anything against the dictator and his successor, while the little man from the street felt rather protected by the draconian regime. Many Thais felt relief over the end of the political bickering.
There are several parallels between Sarit and Thaksin showing that even back then a split in opinions was visible, with the difference that the middle class and political conscience are much further developed since.
Terwiel recommends the classic Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, written by Thak Chaloemitiarana, to get a feel for this time.
3) Politics of Colors:
The colors red and yellow got a political meaning over the past two years that they did not have in the past. Colors though always had symbolic meaning in Thailand. White and black for instance are not popular, because they are related to grief and death.
Blue since generations is the color of the farmer’s shirt, because indigo since centuries is the colorant of the cheapest clothing material. Certain authors and academics consciously wear a blue shirt to show solidarity with the common people.
Yellow in contrast was traditionally related to the Buddhist religion. In former times the robe of many monks was mostly yellow. A Buddhist flag is yellow.
But yellow is as well a symbol for gold, the most valuable of all materials. Images of Buddha can be beautified with gold foil, palaces of kings were covered with it. A building with yellow roof tiles is most certainly part of a Buddhist monastery.
Some colors have a distinctively complex symbolism in Thailand, which is why the wearing of clothes with a certain color is highly symbolic. In a bus you can define the job of most passengers by the clothes they wear.
All students wear the prevailing color white. Most civil servants and teachers wear a khaki uniform. Every larger company has strict rules what employees have to wear. Thais are used to integrate themselves into a group with their clothes and to demonstrate that belonging to a group membership in public.
Over the past twenty years the wearing of a yellow shirt has become a sign of attachment to the king and the love for the monarch. At the 80th birthday of HM the King hundreds of thousands of Thais were dressed in yellow. The color yellow is intentionally chosen by the PAD to demonstrate love for the Buddhist nation and the king – and to express that they think Thaksin is not good for the nation and against the king.
As the counter movement Thaksin’s loyalists chose red, the color of blood and traditionally the color of the revolution.
The selection of red was pretty surprising. Blue would have been much smarter. But perhaps blue was deliberately not chosen because indigo is the traditional color of the rural population. The red shirts want to show that they don’t only consist of poor people.
Terwiel suggests that red was chosen to imply an aggressive, combative stance. The traditional shirt of the warrior – covered by protecting symbols – was bright red.
Tens of thousands of people in a mono-colored sea of red lead to a highly emotional, euphoric experience for all participants, conveying a feeling of courage, trust and the sensation to be part of an infinite power.
Today the yellow shirts are a symbol for the preservation of the status quo, for order and calm and the coherence of everyone who has achieved a degree of welfare.
Read meanwhile symbolizes for most a just allocation of the national income. Thailand may be a beautiful country, but her laborers miss. Unions have mostly been banned and good social laws almost always stumble upon a corrupt system.
The level of frustration can hardly be underestimated. The red shirts of 2009 can be seen as an awakening of the underprivileged majority. Red stands for charged power, for long overdue justice. Even without Thaksin, the red shirt will invigorate Thailand’s political landscape for some time to come.
Leading us to the
The situation is highly volatile and could explode. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is weak and his most loyal advisors won’t allow Thaksin to come back as the head of government. Thaksin is cornered. He want’s his money and Thai passport back and enforce his rehabilitation. The military is divided and hesitates to enter politics again.
The economic crisis aggravates the situation. Without a compromise granting Thaksin access to his frozen money Thailand runs the risk of heading into civil war.
But a compromise has become highly improbable. A few weeks ago one could ask how much Thaksin was willing to do in exchange for a royal pardon. That path looks closed now.
Neither side will stoop to concede own mistakes while Prime Minister Abhisit does not want new elections the pro-Thaksin parties would most probably win.
Abhisit banks on a slow healing process by appeasing means. He plays for time. A recent appearance on TV could be interpreted as a sign that he hopes for an election method securing his party a majority to prevent Thaksin’s return indefinitely.
Most importantly though the Thai government needs measures to seek confidence, to convince the people that his government is here for all Thais. Part of this is the liberalization of the 2007 constitution.
Abhisit most urgently needs measures to defuse the explosively polarized situation.
If he remains in office long enough, one strategy that may work is to devise strategies that are easy to understand and that benefit the poor, exactly the sort of measures that made Thaksin popular.
It is a little disconcerting though that Abhisit has not yet given much attention to the south, where Thaksin’s misrule has provided the Democrats with a head-start.
“Let us hope,” Terwiel concludes, “that this unexperienced man takes that road and thus breaks the cycle of violence.”