Yellows in 2009

This is my estimation of the current “balance of power” in Thailand right now:

In the Red corner, Thaksin Shinawatra, the majority of the electorate in the Northeast, the North, and close to half of Bangkok; the Crown Prince; junior and middle-ranking officers in the military as well as rank-and-file soldiers (judging by the election results in the military districts); the police; the quality international media, as we’ve seen in the last few days: the BBC, CNN, The Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, and The Sydney Morning Herald, the quality Thai broadsheet Matichon, and its largest selling daily, Thai Rath; and rhetorically at least, the US government. There are rumours that China also favours Thaksin.

In the Blue corner, the Democrat Party — serial election losers, who, as a result of the split between the radicals (Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban) and the moderates, are probably unelectable for a generation; the Bangkok middle and upper classes who maintain an anachronistic born-to-rule mentality; the upper- and mid-south voters; the gerontocratic “network monarchy” who appear completely out of touch with reality; the military leadership, who are politically dependent on the Palace’s patronage which, with the rumoured poor health of “certain people”, may no longer be forthcoming, the Courts; the “independent organizations”, the academics; civil servants; and the “old” Thai media (eg. free-to-air TV, Manager, Khom Chat Luek, The Nation, Bangkok Post). The Democrats’ anti-election stance has alienated Western support, and their inability to win elections means that foreign governments looking to pursue their interests in Thailand, including China, would think twice about pinning their hopes on a Democrat-led government.

So, why does much of the academic and media commentary suggest that the two sides are evenly balanced, or even that the “Blue corner” has the upper hand?

Here’s why:

Royalist control over Thailand’s mainstream media organs and the major “ideological networks” (especially the universities and schools) is quite important because their “ideological output” works to exaggerate the support the royalists actually have, in different ways: royalist influence over free-to-air TV suggests to royalist-leaning Thais that they are still as powerful as they were in the past. This illusion is sustained partly because the format of the free-to-air media has hardly changed since the royalist heyday of the post-1992 era.

Royalist influence over the English-language Bangkok Post and Nation suggests the same thing to English-reading Westerners – that the royalist forces are more powerful than they really are.

Aphisit’s media role is in the same vein: the smooth-talking, Eton/Oxford-educated, confident statesman-like image totally misrepresents the reality of his dire situation: he has led his party to four successive election defeats, he has split his party, he is becoming a clown-like figure in the Western media, and he has a mass murder charge hanging over him.

Blue Sky TV and royalist social media have the same effect of exaggerating royalist power: They are essentially royalists talking to themselves, giving them a false sense of being in a superior political position.

Suthep and the whistle-blowers’ constant reference to the support of the “muanmahaprachachon” is similarly an exercise in self-delusion. The whole reason they are protesting is because the “muanmahaprachachon” won’t elect them. Grand gestures like “Shutdown Bangkok”, or “Reform before Elections”, which were both failures, are the same. You only rely on grand gesture when you don’t have real power.

As for the academics, deep down no-one takes them seriously, except the royalist media – which again displays their real weakness. People are just being “polite” by going through the ritual of pretending to listen to them. That’s why the spectacle of University Presidents and Deans of Medical Schools coming out to support Suthep’s movement is much less significant than it appears.

Sure, the Courts and “independent organizations” can dissolve or impeach Peua Thai, but their legitimacy as impartial bodies, which is the basis of what power they have, has been destroyed over the past 8 years. A legal ruling against Peua Thai can’t destroy the Thaksin forces.

As for “network monarchy”, its power flows from the barami [charisma] of “the Establishment”. The barami of “the Establishment” is rapidly fading due to their deteriorating health condition. So the network monarchy is fast becoming a “hollow crown”. In fact, it is arguable that it even still exists in the sense it did when McCargo published his article back in 2005.

All in all it looks like a case of the Southeast Asian “theatre state”. Image belies the reality. The royalists’ sound and fury signifies maybe not nothing, but that they are much weaker than they (and we) think they are. All the talk about the “embattled” Yingluck and Puea Thai party, the likelihood of the royalists establishing a new “fascist” regime, the outbreak of “civil war”, and “regional secession”, similarly exaggerates the royalists’ real power.

To put it in old Marxist terms, the royalists still have an ideological hegemony, but real power is with the Thaksin camp, whose access to key ideological resources in Thailand is more limited, hence the skewed picture of reality.

So my view is that it’s getting closer to “game over” for the Democrats, and more broadly their royalist supporters.

But this certainly does not mean that there is not a strong possibility of violence, due to the miscalculation of the relative strengths of the two sides.

Dr Patrick Jory teaches Southeast Asian history at the University of Queensland.