Here lies a toppled god–
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.
Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah
Many analyses have dissected the underlying personalities, politics, economics, motivations and morality of the Red and Yellow shirt protests and their recent unhappy climax; but an unasked question is how were the protests and their outcome even possible? And to what extent were they structured by those possibilities – was some such confrontation inevitable? The answer lies in the human, political and physical geography of Bangkok and Thailand.
Bangkok’s legendary overcrowded geography, poor urban design and lack of throughfare provide the logistical reason why groups like the Red and Yellow shirts have been able to hold the Thai government hostage. But this human geography is not an accident or random outcome of history. Rather, it is integral to the structure of power that the Red Shirts have protested against (and the Yellow Shirts for). The track to the bloody confrontations of the last weeks was laid in the first years of the twentieth century, when King Chulalongkorn’s (1855-1910) highly centralised government rejected investment in agricultural improvement and policies of general welfare in favour of railways, military improvement, and policies that centralised and projected power.
Consider a thought experiment: what if a similar protest had taken place in Australia? Suppose 10,000 Australian Aborigines had marched on Canberra and blockaded Parliament over a grievance? Headline news, certainly; a significant inconvenience to the regular process of government; many, perhaps a substantial proportion of the population, would have supported their cause, many others been passionately opposed; but it is extremely unlikely that they could have disrupted the nation’s government or economy to the point at which the demonstration had to be broken by force. Canberra, though the administrative and political centre of Australia, is not a “primate city” which dominates the Australian state to the exclusion of other centres of economic or political power. Its open geographic structure similarly excludes protestors from effectively blockading or paralysing the operation of the city or of government.
By contrast, Bangkok may be the world’s quintessential primate city. The seat of Thai political, military, economic, religious and symbolic power, it exceeds the size of the next largest cities, Chiang Mai and Khorat, by an order of magnitude. This over concentration of power stems, in a general sense, from Thailand’s history of centralising monarchy, as does the size of other royal cities such as Paris and London. Countries with a federal system or a republican history, such as Germany, Australia, or the United States of America, tend not to have such primate cities. More specifically, it stems from the decisions taken by King Chulalongkorn and his government to invest scarce public resources in technology and infrastructure that enabled the projection and centralisation of power, such as railroads to far-flung and threatened provinces that could carry soldiers, tax gatherers and administrators, rather than in general prosperity, such as irrigation and agricultural improvement. While perhaps a necessity of monarchist Siam’s survival, these decisions ingrained centralisation and appropriation as the default policy of the Thai state.
Despite the many profound shifts in governance structure since Chulalongkorn’s reign, the Thai political economy has preserved as its fundamental feature the flow of resources to the centre through appropriation of rents, monopolies and surplus labour. For example, agricultural investment in the central plain focussed upon the Rangsit area, where land was mostly owned by court and bureaucratic officials, to enable them to capture the benefits of increased rents, rather than investing in the van der Heide flood control project, which would have benefited smallholder farmers across the central plain. The same pattern was repeated in the transformation of Bangkok, from maritime port to industrial and export hub and urbanised capital. The Privy Purse Bureau, technically the king’s private capital, came to specialise in land speculation, acting in concert with the Ministry of the Capital to buy land in advance of royally ordered road construction and then capture the rents from the resultant increase in land values.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Bangkok’s urban expansion continued to be dominated by rent-seeking and land speculation, supported by military rulers who saw a property-owning class as a source of capital and political stability. Expansion ranged out along the lines of the old canals, which had formerly serviced the farms of the aristocracy. These were filled in to become roads and again create a fresh source of rents for the land-owning classes. This process was largely unconstrained by urban planning, zoning, or the development of the spaces between the new properties, which would have reduced the revenues from urban rentals. As a result, the land inside the lines created by the new roads was undrained and suffered from poor access, becoming today’s urban slums within which the capitalist classes could concentrate their labour force. The new shop-house-fronted roads became a wall that hid the squalid conditions of the enclosed land and its inhabitants. Land values in central areas skyrocketed, resulting in populations moving to the poorly serviced interstitial and outlying areas of the city, in turn giving rise to more commuters along the overcrowded roads and the now legendary traffic jams of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Despite new highway construction since then, Bangkok’s road-to-surface-area ratio remains far below what any urban planner would consider optimal. Bangkok’s choked urban geography of radial main roads and inadequately serviced interstitial areas is designed to funnel rents inwards and upwards to a small elite. It mirrors the political and economic geography of Thailand, designed to project power from, and gather resources to, Bangkok.
This overconcentration of resources and rent seeking land development created the circumstances for a vicious cycle of political vulnerability, manifested in Thailand’s political history of coup after coup. A coup is most likely to succeed when all power is centralised, physically and administratively, in a small number of spaces and institutions within the capital (as noted by Luttwak in his seminal study of the Coup d’Etat). These key areas can be seized by military and paramilitary groups who thus “decapitate” the state and install themselves as the new head of the undamaged “body”. The prize the leaders of a coup d’etat seek to gain is the rich opportunities for parasitic rent and corruption stemming from the capital’s concentration of power and resources. To enjoy the fruits of a coup, they must continue the policies and patterns of development which made the capital vulnerable to a coup. This creates a self-reinforcing political-geographical causal chain. Bangkok’s combination of concentrated power and wealth and bottlenecked urban development are the ideal stage for coups, and the coup leaders are motivated to keep it so.
The coup and violent civil protest of 1991-2 and the resulting loss of face made coups temporarily untenable for the military, given middle-class opposition and the absence of a credible external threat. However, the self-reinforcing nature of Bangkok’s economic primacy, and the still unchecked speculative and rent-seeking patterns of development has meant that the concentration of power which once attracted military coups has simply been replaced by the civilian coup. A civilian coup occurs when large groups of Thai citizens aligned with one or another political faction use the “people power” of numbers and a proclaimed righteous cause (democratisation, anti-corruption, royalism, nationalism, etc) to blockade Bangkok’s power centres and force a redistribution of power, and hence economic resources, towards their faction.
The civilian coup first emerged as a possibility in 1973, and was confirmed as a practical political tactic by the Assembly of the Poor protests in 1991, but the waves of government-toppling protest and counter-protest by Red and Yellow Shirts, which culminated in the re-seizure of this structural space of action by the military in 2006 and 2010, have confirmed the structural homology of protest and coup. The general acceptance of this military re-emergence, which was previously thought to be untenable, confirmed that for the political elite and the Bangkok public there is little perceived or consequential difference between seizure of the streets by bodies or by guns. As long as power is spatially concentrated within Bangkok, the coup will be Thailand’s Golden Apple of Discord, irresistible, bringing conflict in its wake.