My wife has just returned from a trip into the Thai countryside which involved a two-night stop-over in Bangkok. She reported that there are soldiers everywhere, almost as if martial law has been imposed, and areas of the city are blocked off at night and the whole place is generally very tense and the normal hustle and bustle of this lively city is significantly subdued. There has been some violence, although this being Thailand it is far more contained and things are much calmer than you could expect in almost any other country.
However, the tourists numbers have dropped significantly, no doubt due to various foreign offices firstly covering their arses by telling people to avoid the place regardless, and secondly by lazily assuming trouble in Bangkok means trouble everywhere else. It doesn’t. The closest I have seen to a Red Shirt rally in Phuket is a Manchester United game on TV. Unless you go looking for trouble or are very, very unlucky, the worst that will happen to a visitor to Thailand is the airport might be disrupted, and a volcano in Iceland can just as easily cause that at the other end. For sure, I would not recommend a visit to Bangkok itself right now if that’s what you’re planning, but lying about on a beach on Phuket or Koh Samui is as safe as anywhere and your holiday is not going to be interrupted by anything going on in Bangkok.
But all that said, the political situation is uncertain and unless an accommodation or compromise is found soon, things could turn uglier and hit tourism and the industries which rely on it pretty hard. A few expats I have spoken to said they are refraining from buying property in Thailand until this issue is resolved fearing a change in the law a few years down the line, but I don’t think that worry will ever completely go away. I have no idea what will happen and can offer no insight here, except perhaps an opinion as to whether Thailand will fall into full-scale civil war. I don’t think it will, and here’s why.
Firstly, it needs to be understood that fighting a civil war is a tough business. The entire population, and not just the fighting men and boys, will have to endure extreme and sometimes unimaginable hardship. For those actually fighting, this will involve living in the jungle on meagre rations, away from home and family, without access to anything but the very basic medical care, for an indefinite period which might be for decades. For the rest of the population, which includes the fighters’ family and friends, a civil war will entail death, disease, hunger, a destruction of all infrastructure and civil society, and a return to the peasant farming of fifty odd years ago. In short, anyone who wants to pick up a rifle in a civil war must be prepared to give up anything he has gained thus far and values in life, e.g. children, a house, car, etc. and endure serious hardship in the knowledge that his loved ones will suffer too.
This appears to be easy for the menfolk in places like Somalia or Afghanistan where they have very little by way of possessions or material wealth and comforts, so the difference between fighting and not fighting is minimal, almost to the point that it is down to whether you let off some rounds from your rifle or not. This is not the case in Thailand. Despite Thailand’s reputation as being a cheap place to holiday with lots of little poor brown people to serve you, the laws of the Kingdom regarding business and property ownership have resulted in a large middle-class which has been ever growing for the past three decades. The wealthy Thai elites in Bangkok have done very well out of the tourist industry, but so has a huge number of hitherto poor folk. The elites have made sure they’re all right, but they have not prevented everyone else with a brain or a work ethic from prospering too. When I went to Cambodia a few years back, I found a bunch of new hotels being built by Korean contractors using Thai and Malaysian money and a whole load of Thai and Malaysian tourists. The Thai middle class has grown to a point where going on holiday abroad is now affordable, investing abroad is possible, and a good many Thais go abroad for their education. These wealthier Thais are in the minority, and those in the countryside (from whence all the dancing girls come) are still poor by almost any standard, but the numbers are moving in the right direction: things are getting better, not worse. And the farmers and other rural dwellers, despite being poor, are not destitute. I’m sure there are some areas of Thailand where poverty rivals that of Africa, but in general even in the remote countryside most people share – if not own – a reasonable house with an electricity connection and a refrigerator, a scooter or old pickup truck, and a telephone situated somewhere nearby. There is enough food and water to go around, and epidemics of disease exist but are not widespread. Education services are basic, very basic, but nonetheless available. Small comforts these may be, but they are not nothing, and the Thais will appreciate their lot now compared with 20 years ago regardless of any displeasure with the current government. So should any Thai decide to pick up a rifle and join in a civil war, he will certainly lose out on something: in some cases not a lot, but each and every Thai will lose something which they have worked pretty hard for.
However, populations with lots to lose can and do plunge themselves into civil war regardless of the hardship that entails, but it requires the fighters and their supporters to have serious motivation to do so. This motivation is normally driven by religious or ethnic differences, a desire for national liberation, or extreme ideological divides with the last one usually requiring the outside backing of one or more of the belligerents. Pretty much every civil war I can think of rose from a situation where one or more of the above criteria applied, where enough of the population had sufficient motivation to take up arms in support of their cause.
Thankfully, none of the above applies in Thailand. Thais share the same religion and much the same ethnicity (I’m simplifying here, but there is no divide in Thailand along ethnic lines). Nobody is advocating separatism. And the ideological divide seems to be relatively minor compared to the Soviet-backed Communists vs Western-backed Everybody Else conflicts which caused such mayhem during the Cold War, or the Royalist vs Maoist conflicts in Nepal. Indeed, the problem in Thailand seems to be a disagreemment over government policy between the rural poor and … well it’s hard to say, but somewhere between the Bangkok elite and everybody else. Judging by what’s being shouted about, the demands of the Red Shirts are not unreasonable in the general scheme of things. It’s along the lines of “More money and power for us!” which sounds pretty much like political movements of all stripes anywhere. Nobody is calling for the dissolution of the monarchy to become a socialist republic with the southern half of the country joining Malaysia. Far from it. And probably most importantly, there is no outside party – either a troublemaking neighbour or distant superpower – with any interest whatsoever in seeing Thailand descend into violence. In the event of a major armed conflict arms sanctions would almost certainly apply, and without any outside support it is unlikely such a conflict could sustain itself for long.
The Red Shirt protestors are motivated enough – by money or otherwise – to hold lengthy protests in the capital and engage in sporadic and relatively low-level violence, largely aimed at the police or army. But this is a long, long, way short of finding the motivation, and the numbers, to wage a protracted civil war. A swift coup is always a possibility in Thailand, with the population wishing for – almost demanding – a rapid return to normality immediately thereafter, as has been the case in the past. The worst case scenario would be a low-level terrorist campaign waged against government targets in the provinces with the occasional bombing of a city or two, but even that would probably struggle to garner the popular support such a campaign requires to sustain itself, let alone succeed.
There just isn’t the anger on the streets to warrant fears of a civil war. The Thais simply have too much to lose and not enough reason to lose it.