WORLD -- February 4, 2010 at 7:08 PM ET
Bangkok Dispatch: Thailand's Political Transformation
For all its much noted nightlife, Bangkok seems to be a city of many early risers.
In the pre-dawn hours, street vendors begin hauling out the carts that will dispense breakfast, lunch and dinner -- soups, stir-fried vegetables, noodles, sticky rice and grilled and fried meats -- to tens of thousands of city dwellers.
By 6 a.m., on the other end of the social and economic spectrum, a long line forms for the opening of an upscale gym -- Bangkok's yuppies ready to tone up for a working day in the city's mushrooming and ever taller office towers.
Within an hour, the streets are jammed. Some 1,000 new cars are registered in Thailand every day, and as a cab driver sardonically noted, most end up in Bangkok traffic. But the legendary tie-ups rarely produce any horn honking. "What good would it do?" asked the cab driver.
The buildings and the cars are but two examples of the country's leap into urban prosperity in the 1980s and 1990s, the years of the Thai Tiger before they came crashing down in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The recovery since has been mixed and unsteady; the International Monetary Fund predicted 4.7 percent growth this year, placing Thailand among the Asian laggards in the world's most dynamic economic region.
As some Western business executives will volunteer, part of that economic uncertainty is rooted in Thailand's polarized and often chaotic politics. The most recent enduring impression of Thailand for many in the outside world is of yellow-shirted demonstrators shutting down Bangkok's airport in December 2008, driving a stake into the heart of the tourist industry, the country's second biggest foreign exchange earner.
Nearly every day, the Bangkok newspapers are full of stories and rumors of an impending military coup, dutifully followed by quotes from the country's top general denying any such intention or plans. Though most Thai and Western political analysts dismiss a coup possibility, the rumors still resonate in a country that has seen 20 coup attempts -- nine successful -- since the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s.
"Politics has always been intense here but with levels of high and low intensity," said one of Thailand's most noted and quoted political scientists, Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University. "Now the intensity is high."
Behind the intensity is a struggle going on at two levels, according to Thitinan as well as Western diplomats and analysts.
The upfront drama revolves around the personality of former and now exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, sometimes described as a Thai equivalent of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire populist. He's denounced as an autocrat and a thief but also recognized for giving political voice to the rural poor.
A year after his 2005 re-election, Thaksin was ousted in a coup on grounds of corruption. An election in 2007 brought pro-Thaksin majorities to parliament, but also produced two street movements, anti-Thaksin demonstrators in yellow shirts and then pro-Thaksin backers wearing red shirts. With a nudge from the army, a more anti-Thaksin coalition took power in parliament. And to the surprise of most analysts, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his coalition have managed to stay in office for more than a year.
The next big test for the Abhisit government and military comes at the end of this month, when the country's Supreme Court rules on whether Thaksin can hold on to several billion dollars of assets or whether they will be seized by the state as ill-gotten gains. A ruling either way is likely to bring pro- or anti-Thaksin demonstrators back on to the streets in numbers, and then the question arises whether the military will feel the need to step in and maintain order.
Yet, the immediate dramas, as Thitinan and other analysts are quick to point out, are but a prelude to a longer and more profound struggle.
"This is about the transformation of the monarchy," said Thitinan. King Buhimbol Adulyadej, whose picture is displayed in wall posters and store counters all over the country, is 82 and has been hospitalized since autumn. In a modern, 21st century nation, he's a king who wields real political power. And no matter how well informed, no analyst or diplomat will hazard a guess on what happens when Buhimbol ceases to occupy the throne.
As several of these analysts are quick to point out, the red and yellow shirts are symbolic of the different groups and factions that will be involved in a real struggle for power -- democrats, royalists, the military, a relatively newly empowered business class and the even more newly empowered rural poor.
"The Thais know they are facing a long, difficult and profound transformation. They are looking inward, and they are very worried," said one Western diplomat.
And besides the Thais themselves, the United States has a big stake but probably diminishing influence over this transformation. Since the 1950s, Thailand has been a lynchpin American ally in southeast Asia, symbolized by B52s flying out of Thai bases on bombing missions during the Vietnam war.
The U.S. still maintains a vast civilian mission here, but it now appears President Obama will go through the first two years of his presidency visiting every key Asian nation -- most recently Indonesia was added to the list -- without setting foot here. China is displacing the U.S. as Thailand's No. 1 export market. With its proliferation of Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's, Thailand at first glance reflects the trappings of American consumer society. But those who know it well say this nation of 65 million is going its own way, even if has yet to determine exactly and how peacefully what that way will be.