Nirmal Ghosh’s book Unquiet Kingdom—Thailand in Transition, offers an insight into Thailand’s political scene of recent times. The book is a well-written, firsthand account by the author, as a correspondent for The Straits Times from 2003 onwards, about the extreme divisiveness in Thai politics which has led to frequent army coups and rule by Thailand’s elite and its military. It gives a detailed insight into the political situation in Thailand today.
In the introduction, the author broadly introduces the social and political scene in Thailand from the early 2000s onwards, and explains that the country has for years been in ferment, caught in tensions, and exposing the fault lines of a feudal nation experimenting with democracy. He explains that the new political awareness and assertiveness by the common man in Thailand has been empowered by high economic growth, which has increased the divide between the elite and the poor; and the explosive expansion of online social media which has collapsed barriers and is now challenging the feudal system, including the monarchy and the moneyed ruling elite, with serious consequences. He further describes the extreme reactions by the elite society who were against the populist rule of the billionaire businessman, the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had come to power in 2001 by an overwhelming vote of the rural population and the business community of Thailand. His populist schemes to uplift the poor are what drew an extreme backlash from the elite as they felt that it posed a major challenge to their power.
The author, then, summarises the follow-up events—the agitation, violence, killings by the opposition, the army coup in 2006, and agitation by Thaksin’s supporters; Thaksin’s surrogate’s return to power in 2007, the judicial coup to overthrow Thaksin, and the opposition being put into power; fresh elections in 2011, and Thaksin’s supporters coming back into power under his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. The government of the People Power Party (PPP) was then dissolved; thereafter the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led an anti-Thaksin agitation; and finally, there was another coup by the army in 2014.
The death of Thailand’s father figure, King Bhumibol Aduljadej in 2016 was viewed with despondency because of his calming influence over national politics. There were promises of fresh elections, but the Thai people now worry about the threat of further violence and anarchy.
The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter One, “Democracy Derailed,” covers Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party’s rule from 2001 to 2006, having just brought the country out of its financial crisis of the 1990s. His policies addressed the aspirations of the rural poor with a view to stimulate the rural economy, a war on drug dealers wherein thousands were killed, and reforms to ensure economic growth, much to the chagrin of the opposition, PAD (the elites known as the Yellow Shirts).
The author then covers the PAD-launched agitation and violence against Thaksin’s government, accusing it of conflict of interest, disrespecting the monarchy, and corruption. Thaksin had called for fresh elections to reinforce his party’s mandate, which he easily won, but the election was boycotted by the opposition. The author describes the Constitutional Court then annulling the election; Thaksin’s party being then ousted and banned in 2006, consequent to an army coup. The army then drew up the country’s twentieth Constitution, fresh elections were held in 2007, and Thaksin’s surrogate PPP (the Red Shirts) came back to power.
Ghosh describes the massive demonstrations and violence by the PAD, which again led to the ouster of the PPP, through the Constitutional Court on alleged grounds of electoral fraud. The Constutional Court, with the army’s backing, then nominated the PAD, the Yellow Shirts, to govern Thailand.
In Chapter Two, “They are my Servant,” the author describes the events during the volatile and violent PAD rule led by the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva: There was now a clear divide between Northern Thailand (the Red Shirt area) and Bangkok (the abode of the elites), with street battles and the army’s anti-riot operations being the order of the day, with Thaksin and his party continuing to be the heroes of the poor and being considered their ‘servants’ by the elite.
In Chapter Three, “Red Rage,” the author covers in fair detail the agitation and violence by the Red Shirts against their unconstitutional ousting repeatedly and against the PAD rule till 2011. The elites considered it as an attack on their power and on the monarchy, and they believed the Red Shirts must be confronted by brute force, which led to the repeated deployment of the army to suppress the agitation, and the ultimate all-out crackdown by the army to break the Red Shirt agitation in 2010.
In Chapter Four, “Lawyer, Activist, Scientist,” the author describes the commendable activities of Dr. Porntip Rojanasunand, a lady forensic scientist who was respected by all; Srisuwan Janya, a lawyer, who filed and fought environmental cases without fear in spite of death threats; and an environmental activist, Thongnak Sawekchinda, who was assassinated by the coal mafia for his protests, in the midst of all the violence during the agitation.
Chapter Five, “Monks, Money, Metta,” covers the influence and activities of the monks during this period. The author explains that while there were a few good Buddhist monks such as Luangta Mahabua, who was widely revered and had donated a large amount of gold to help bail out the country during Thailand’s financial crisis in the 1990s, the majority of the monks had become corrupt, they had become wise in worldly ways, and had commercialised Buddhism, indicating that this was part of the disruptive change that had hit the country.
The author in Chapter Six, “Bodies in the Sun,” describes the vicious insurgency by the Muslims of Thailand’s deep south in the Malay Muslim dominated provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Satun just north of the Thai-Malaysia border, who have been deeply alienated by the Thai Buddhists. Their insurgency continues, as does the brutal Thai Army counterinsurgency operations.
In Chapter Seven, the author describes the “Short Rule of Yingluck Shinawatra,” Thaksin’s sister and her surrogate, the Pheu Thai Party, coming into power in a landslide victory in 2011 with the backing of her exiled brother, Thaksin. The author outlines Yingluck’s enactment of a number of populist measures for the poor and the farmers, and her attempts to amend the elitist 2007 Constitution in order to block the elite Constitutional Court from dismissing elected parties and to pave the way for Thaksin’s return. These moves were blocked by the elitists in 2012 through the Constitutional Court, and by extensive agitation by the Yellow Shirts which continued till her party was ousted by another declaration by the Court after a 2014 electoral victory. An army coup led to army rule in 2014 and the start of Yingluck’s prosecution on corruption charges. The author then describes how a fresh Constitution was again drawn up by the army and cleared in a nominal referendum, the announcement of fresh elections for the end of 2017, as also King Bhumibol’s unfortunate demise in 2016. He explains that the Thai people believe that without the old king’s wisdom and calming influence the situation may well deteriorate.
In a short Chapter Eight, the author as an aside, covers as part of Thailand’s efforts at wildlife conservation a few environmental issues, some effective but many ineffective. The book ends a bit abruptly on that note. In overall analysis, the book, while in some way disjointed in parts, indeed offers a “unique insight into Thailand by an insider-outsider.”
Lt.-Gen. John Ranjan Mukherjee (Retd., PVSM, AVSM, VSM) is former General Officer Commanding Kashmir (15 Corps), and Chief of Staff Eastern Command. He is the author of An Insider’s Experience of Insurgency in India’s North East, and The Indomitable Rhino Warriors of India’s North East: History of the Assam Regiment.