Thailand's lesson of legitimacy within a violent pressure cooker

Governments can no longer be ordered by fiat and diktat - people’s consent is necessary. That’s missing at the moment - in Australia and abroad.

In 1985 a ridiculous, abortive coup attempt shocked Bangkok. It only lasted 10 hours before being brought to a swift and abrupt conclusion, but loaded weapons provoke tragedy. One of the four who died that year was Australian cameraman Neil Davis. He was filming a rebel tank outside a radio tower when a canister round sprayed the road with flechettes. The violence had been utterly pointless.

Just five years later, when I arrived in Bangkok as the ABC correspondent, it was looking as if the country had finally turned the corner and coups were a thing of the past. But by 1992 I was watching as bodies were again ripped apart by bullets in the Thai capital. Those demonstrations, riots, killings were in May, too. The thick, enveloping heat of the dry season grips the capital, wearing stretched people down and provoking trouble. The weather takes on its own elemental power, inflaming passions and inciting hostility, before the torrential rains of the tropical wet flood the city.

Since then the generals have again, twice, provided assurances that they wouldn’t intervene in politics, only to order their troops onto the streets within hours. On both occasions they’ve claimed they had to intervene to prevent chaos and return the country to stability. Unfortunately, the soldiers may well be right. Regrettably, however, a coup is not the answer. It simply prolongs the problem.

Why? The current crisis can be deciphered in two ways. The first uses the simple story of one man, elected leader Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled in the 2006 coup (and currently living in Dubai). But, like everything in Thailand, this is a family story and now his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has just had her own duly-elected government toppled by the military. In fact, for six elections now, and although the names of the political parties have changed, the people have voted for the Shinawatra clan. Their supporters wear red shirts and it’s

The benefits of development that scar the cities (smog and pollution, money to buy plastic toys and cheap clothes that rapidly fall apart, and life crammed into slums) have bypassed the countryside. So has money. Yingluck came to power with a promise to buy rice at the old, buoyant prices before the world market collapsed. But today huge heaps of grain rot in massive stashes dotted around the countryside. There’s no obvious economic answer that’s likely to restore prosperity. Thailand’s neighbours are sucking in new investment just as its economic miracle is stalling. Analyse the problem from this perspective and it’s difficult not to believe that the problem is structural - but then personalities push their way back into the storyline and now it’s the royal family.

It’s traditional at this point in the tale to insert a line about the revered and beloved 86-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol, who made one of his increasingly rare public appearances earlier this month. He was greeted with a sea of yellow garlands before again disappearing into a holiday palace at Hua Hin on the coast. The military would never act in opposition to his wishes and, in the past, he has conferred legitimacy to coups. But the King - like our own Queen - is elderly. His son - like the heir to our own throne - is a different person. This backdrop introduces further volatility into the mix.


So does the news of the military imprisoning police officers in the capital. Thaksin was once a police officer and the soldiers may have been suspicious about the willingness of their blue-uniformed brethren to enforce their decrees. But the Thailand of today is integrated into the world economy. Global capital flows can’t be kept in check by rifles. There’s no reason investment would necessarily abandon a country simply because it’s an authoritarian regime - but if they’re to flourish, assets demand stability and certainty. By its very nature, a coup strips the ensuing government of legitimacy.

Successful government requires consent. To achieve this people need to see an environment in which they can flourish, in which opportunity is offered to all and one in which everyone’s effort is rewarded. What has allowed Thai society to function in the past has been the flow of wealth down through the economy to boost everyone’s standard of living. But today the pressures of life have built up just as the hold of tradition is weakening. It’s no wonder the result, over the past decade, has been the building-up of a violent pressure cooker that’s now threatening to explode.

So, you see how simple it is to analyse what’s happening in Thailand? It almost makes you wonder why people over there can’t see what’s happening; get their act together; make the necessary compromises for the good of all, and then get on with life in a wonderful country? Which seems a good opportunity, suddenly and abruptly, to twist the column to an examination of Australia.

No danger of a coup here, of course, and it’s very unlikely the Queen would ever give the nod to one even if General David Hurley could be persuaded to strike before his command expires at the end of next month. Nevertheless, and particularly since the budget, there’ve been significant expressions of anger and discontent. Many people are finding it increasingly difficult to discern a government working to create a social and economic framework within which they can flourish. Government can no longer be ordered by fiat and diktat - people’s consent is necessary. That’s missing at the moment, which is why Tony Abbott’s threat of a double dissolution isn’t working.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.