In the midst of our great election crisis, here’s the latest news on another crisis — the one in Thailand, as reported by our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan.
Why so many coups?
by H. Numan
I’ve been reporting about Thailand for many years. This year, on the 30th of December, I celebrate 25 years of being an alien. I kind of dislike being called an alien, but there you go. That is what foreigners are called under Thai law. Thailand is not America. You can’t get a green card. Citizenship is possible, but… his majesty the king personally grants you citizenship. As kings usually have more important things to do, you can understand that acquiring Thai nationality is pretty difficult. In those 25 years I witnessed and reported about three successful coups, several failed coup attempts, a siege of Bangkok and more. When I arrived in 1994 the 24th constitution was being written. I’ve lost count, but the current one should be version 26 or 27.
We expats joke about so many constitutions: The new constitution™. Super clean! Now with more Anti-Corruptors© and extra transparency! I calculated how often a coup has been committed since the bloodless coup of 1932 that abolished the absolute monarchy. Should be around 40. On average a coup every four years. One could say, with good reason, the form of Thai government is a coup-o-cracy. We go to the ballot box every four years; Thais have a coup. Why is that?
One big reason is the capital. Bangkok is twenty-six times bigger than the next largest city. It’s quite common for capitals to be bigger than other cities in a country, but 26 times bigger is unique. The Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA) is the city of Bangkok with surrounding provinces as an administrative unit. It is the only multi-province city in the country, and that has vast consequences. Effectively Bangkok is a huge city-state with Thailand surrounding it. For Dutch readers: the size of the BMA is equal to the province of Gelderland, the largest Dutch province. With as many inhabitants as The Netherlands has. Imagine everybody living in Gelderland and nowhere else. Makes for a pretty big city, what?
All roads in Thailand lead to Bangkok. Literally and metaphorically. Most companies have their headquarters in Bangkok. If they haven’t, they are not a nationwide or international company. Same goes for education. Of course you can study somewhere else, but most — and the most prestigious — universities are in Bangkok. A civil career means finding a job in administration — which you find in Bangkok. Bangkokians talk about ‘up country’ which means anywhere outside of Bangkok. The legal minimum wage varies per province, but is highest in Bangkok, where the cost of living is the highest. Roughly speaking, about 20 million people live in Bangkok. The remaining +50 million live ‘up country’. Thais have a saying: the government is elected up country, but sent home in Bangkok.
When I arrived in 1994, Thailand had gone through a bloody coup period. Democracy was new, and thriving. Thaksin Shinawatra was a business tycoon who just went into politics. I was there on a meeting when he, as the new minister for telecommunications, announced he would solve the traffic problems of Bangkok in three months. Of course he couldn’t. I think even the mighty Heracles would prefer cleaning the stable of King Augeas rather than solve that problem. Much easier!
That period was the eye in the storm. A temporary calm period. Thaksin was a very capable politician. His traffic promise cost his party, the Palang Dharma party, everything. They disappeared. He walked away scot-free and founded a new party. He used his own marketing team to do the promotion. That’s like Mark Zuckerberg deciding he wants to become PM, and ordering his marketing team to make it happen. Of course, it happened.
Adherents of Thaksin wore red shirts. The color has nothing to do with communism. The communist party is explicitly forbidden in every Thai constitution. Red stands for the blood of the people or for the people itself. It’s a very common mistake made by left-wing intellectuals: Thaksin supporters are predominantly rural and urban poor, and wear red. So they must fight for the proletariat! Don’t laugh. They really think that. I had the experience during the Siege of Bangkok.
Which brings us to Thai nobility. We have our own nobility. They don’t have western titles, like duke or count. But they do have titles, and are hugely powerful. The system is very different from the West. Every generation inherits a lower ranking title, up to three generations. After that they are no longer noble. Though most often still recognizable: when someone has ‘na’ in the family name, they decent from nobility, like ‘von’ in German. “Somchai Na Ayutthaya” would be someone descending from the royal family of Ayutthaya. We expats often joke about that. Patpong is both the name of the famous red light district of Bangkok and a very rich and extremely powerful family. Jimmy Na Patpong would be a joke name for someone visiting the nightlife very often. Na Patpong, by the way, does not exist. The Patpong family is not noble, though they own that plot of Bangkok.