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Dark shadow over the Thai smile (DAMIR SAGOLJ/Reuters)
Dark shadow over the Thai smile (DAMIR SAGOLJ/Reuters)

Daryl Copeland

Dark shadow over the Thai smile Add to ...

Bangkok, the once easygoing Thai capital, is not a Tier 1 world capital in economic or political terms. But with its superb shopping, spectacular hotels, exotic food and accessible vices, it has been popular with international travellers for decades, which helps to explain why the sensational images and dramatic headlines from the recent "Battle of Bangkok" struck home in a way that similar events elsewhere would not.

Media coverage focused on the immediate challenge to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government mounted by the red-shirted supporters of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra. However, the unrest was not just another expression of elite factions jockeying for advantage within defined limits. This was the culmination of five years of escalating confrontation, behind which lies an even deeper dialectic, the interplay between security and development in the age of globalization.

To get a better understanding of the complex dynamic, it is useful to return to first principles. Genuine development has little to do with project aid or humanitarian assistance, the two activities with which it is most commonly associated. It is a long-term, human-centred, equitable and sustainable process. Development flourishes in circumstances where something approaching individual and collective potential can be achieved without excessive obstacles or constraints.

Security - at least, the variety that emphasizes the centrality of the person rather than the state or some other referent - has become the flip side of development. It can exist only in the absence of want and fear, which is to say that basic needs are being met without perceived threats to well-being.

Development, then, has largely become the basis for security, especially in the global South. But because it is in such scarce supply, its roiling underside, insecurity, is more often in evidence. This is especially true in the era of globalization, which, not least due to its close association with neo-liberal economic prescriptions, tends to skew resource distribution and sharpen inequalities.

Framed in these terms, the past few weeks in Thailand can be seen as a case study of underdevelopment breeding insecurity in the context of globalization's tendency to cut all ways. The Thai brand has been spoiled, and the national ideology rent asunder. Something elemental seems to have come unstuck. Whether it can be put back together again is anyone's guess.

Thailand's rich natural endowment and robust economic growth have obscured the frailty of its political culture and national institutions: Democracy's roots are shallow, the rule of law is applied capriciously and public administration is opaque. This lack of a participatory, inclusive politics, and a related over-reliance on the military and the monarchy, has left the country ill-equipped to deal with the present crisis. Reaching out to the excluded, on the other hand, was Mr. Thaksin's forté.

Not long ago, reports that the language of class struggle had entered into the opposition lexicon would have been dismissed as inconceivable. References to "serfs" and "aristocracy" are quite unprecedented. Moreover, such labels do not sit comfortably with the real lives of most people in rural Thailand, who enjoy high literacy rates, electrified houses, motorcycles, televisions, Internet access. These are certainly not typical peasants.

Still, those higher levels of connectivity have raised awareness of the Bangkok-centric and chronically imbalanced allocation of wealth and access. Strikingly divergent employment and educational opportunities and the uneven provision of services have contributed to a growing sense that many are being left behind as fortunes are amassed by a few.

Immediately before the crisis, as an open, market-oriented trading economy, Thailand was a darling of the international community - a model of economic development and a vibrant emerging democracy. And to be sure, it had become heavily globalized. This produced wealth, but not for everyone. Growth has not translated into development, and therein lies the critical flaw in the Thai model.

It should also be noted that in mature countries such as Thailand, stability is somewhat of a default position. It can be imposed by force when necessary, but it is easily disrupted and is not to be confused with security, which is of more profound provenance.

The idea of Muang Thai, "the land of the free," has for years been expressed in its most extreme form as the freedom to exploit nature, environment, women, children. Yet conventional wisdom had it that a shared sense of identity would keep the social fabric from fraying beyond repair. This, too, has become a highly questionable proposition, particularly with ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej apparently unable to intervene. It appears that Buddhism, the monarchy and the country's long history as an independent regional player with a distinct language and culture are no longer enough to contain Thailand's underlying fissures.

Things can go terribly wrong even in places with many inherent advantages - think of Burma, Argentina and Sri Lanka. With the government's withdrawal of an offer to hold new elections, the extension of curfew and state of emergency, the filing of terrorism charges against Mr. Thaksin and the insurrection's spread, Thailand is entering uncharted territory. The state and its leadership are facing a full-blown crisis of legitimacy.

Although sources of resilience remain, the country's reputation as a tourist paradise has taken a major hit, which will create longer-term repercussions for employment, foreign investment and the national accounts. There are also disturbing implications for Thailand's Southeast Asian neighbours, many of which suffer from similar development and security ills.

Absent a wholesale effort at national reconciliation predicated on dialogue, negotiation and compromise, Thailand's prospects will remain uncertain at best. With only the military showing signs of institutional cohesion, the future, like a dark shadow over the Thai smile, looks troubled.

Daryl Copeland is a former diplomat with postings in Thailand and Southeast Asia. He is author of Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations and is adjunct professor and senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of International Studies.

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