Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is Thailand a Failed State?

Thai Solider outside a mosque in Ampur Bananstar, Yala province.

Is Thailand a failed state?

The short answer, I think, is no, but the longer answer is maybe.

I once talked with Dr Chaiwat Satha-anand from Thammasat University – a prominent academics and a common face on Thai TV – who told me; “Thailand is not a failed state…but we are starting to show signs of failure.

He was talking about the southern crisis and was specifically talking about the life of southern residents.

He told me that there is a panic for legitimacy in the Thai government, a panic that started in Thaksin's time and has gone on to consume the various governments since.

Samak's government is particularly at risk and can only focus on its own survival. It has no time, no moral authority, and apparently no will to try to resolve the violent rebellion in the southern border provinces.

And law, already suffering in the border provinces, has further broken down in the south. Justice does not exist and citizens have resorted to carrying guns for their own protection because the state can not protect them.

This is a fundamental problem in that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force. Not only are armed insurgents challenging that, but ordinary people have decided to take their own safety, and the law, into their own hands.

The government has imposed draconian laws, such as the emergency decree and marshal law, that strip citizens of their rights and has give the security forces immunity from prosecution. The military, the police, and a growing number of armed militias are now operating with complete legal immunity.

The violence has also divided the community.

In the past, the Thai-Buddhists and the Malay-Muslim citizens were not divided by some bizarre civilizational barrier but lived in a distinctly multicultural space that was characterised by ethnic and religious diversity.

Now, the corrosive persistence of violence and poisonous nationalisms are pushing a divide between Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim citizens.

But compared to failed states like Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, Thailand doesn’t compare.

Burma is in utter shambles, so poverty stricken, repressed, and ethnically divided that some experts will admit that a resolution to the vast problems there might never emerge.

Cambodia is ruled by the self proclaimed 'strong man' Hun Sen for over 20 years and the country is also mired in poverty, and deeply scared from a genocide which the country has yet to reconcile with itself.

Laos is simply a communist museum, locked into the past, and seems unlikely to wake up to the modern world.

So, no Thailand is not a failed state but, as professor Chaiwat said, it is showing signs of being one.


  1. Thailand - Who is in charge?

    The outside world watching the Thai riots and demonstrations for the past six months or more must wonder "who is in charge"? First came the yellow shirts, the group alleged to represent the Thai elite, protesting the sitting government of Somchai Wongsawat for three months culminating in the world famous closing of Suvarnibhumi International Airport, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers and business people. The incident virtually wrecked the Thai economy, tourism, travel, and business, and the incident just eventually "dissolved" after two weeks of airport closure. No effort was made by police or government to intervene and assert any form of "control" over the yellow shirts or evidence that the sitting government was in control if its own security.

    For the past few months a repeat of this process has been escalating by the red shirts, the group alleged to represent "all" Thais and the one man one vote concept, who have been protesting and demonstrating around Thailand and Bangkok for months that the current government is illegitimate. Like the yellow shirts before them, they have been protesting the sitting government; this time led by Abhisit Vejjijiva, the fourth prime minister in one year. Their protest action culminated in a crescendo of protest at the ASEAN summit in the Pattaya beach resort of Thailand, two hours drive east of Bangkok. To the horror of Asian leaders attending the conference, demonstrators broke through cordoned areas, and glass doors of the hotel venue, The Royal Cliff Hotel, and disrupted activity at the conference until the embarrassed Vejjijiva suspended its schedule and other world leaders retreated back to their countries.

    The red shirt demonstration escalated further back to Bangkok, as more demonstrators joined the throng which centered on various key sites around Victory Monument and Din Daeng, key highway and road access points around Bangkok. This brought Bangkok's traffic on the start of the Thai new year, Songkhran to its knees. After the closing of the ASEAN summit and escalation of demonstrations in Bangkok over the past weekend up through today, Tuesday morning, 14 April, the riots in Bangkok have ebbed and flowed with military involvement attempting to push demonstrators back and off the key roads, and demonstrators standing ground and hurling sticks, rocks, and an occasional molotov cocktail at heavily armed and geared military contingents. In addition, red shirt groups have dispatched women members to appeal to the military with flower offerings to plead permission to continue to demonstrate and express their right to a democratic voice for change, while nearby military contingents fired live M-16 rounds into the air and occasional fire into the level of the crowd.

    The question is not which side is right, the good guys or the bad guys, or which color shirt stands for a "real Thai democracy", the key question that the world and residents of Thailand ask is "who is in charge?" Unfortunately, the ending of the current riots and the restoration of some form of normalcy to Bangkok life won't answer this question and will still be very far from assuring that things have stabilized. The Thai system of government and representation needs a radical makeover to be effective. Very deep divisions in the country illustrate clearly that any change of leadership will only augur well for more turmoil, disruption, systemic breakdown, and examples of lack of control. All Thai people need to be asking in sane, mature dialog - what and who do we want to be as a unified country? Can we stand together for Thailand or for self interest and agenda? Can we represent all the people for economic development, freedom, transparency, and prosperity or narrow, out of touch named governments masquerading as real representation? What is within our reach and reality? They need to develop a sense of will to start on a road map of change. They need to find leadership who can get them to focus on these critical questions and maintain control of the process of change and unification.

    Thailand needs to come to a sense of reality that repeating the same failed process of dissolving governments, electing new ones, demonstrating in protest, selecting high profile targets and events to amplify their cause, will only be repeating the same failed exercises expecting the results to be different. The one result that is guaranteed by such action is a totally disintegrated Thai state, completely disenfranchised from the rest of the region and the world, and the continued question of "who is in charge", until that question inevitably changes to the clear fact that "no one is in charge", and it becomes inevitable that Thailand will have completed its evolution into a failed state.
    Bangkok Thailand

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