Once upon a time Thailand was the bulwark of American power in the heart of Southeast Asia. It was a strong, anti-communist state that was easy to govern because of a rich agricultural heartland protected by mountains and the relative absence of ethnic or religious conflict. Great moral authority emanated from the royal palace under King Bhumibol Adulyadej, still on the throne today, whose pillars of power were the Royal Thai Army, noble families and bureaucratic elites and the reverent masses. The military was, in turn, buttressed by force of arms, the king's aura, American patronage and control of state corporations. Rice farming was the basis of the economy, and the peasant farmers revered the king, who dispensed wisdom, infrastructure funds and development aid. The oldest U.S. ally in the region, Thailand served as a staging post for the American military during the Vietnam War.
Thailand had other advantages, too. It formed an identifiable nation from the 13th century, after the Siamese migrated from southern China and carved a space for themselves over the succeeding centuries through conflicts with the neighboring Khmer and Burmese kingdoms. Thailand has never been colonized, unlike the rest of Indochina. It dealt with rival British and French colonists, and collaborated with the Japanese before switching to the American side in World War II, in order to preserve its independence. Hence the Western world did not humiliate the Thais as much as it did others; the Thais have fewer chips on their shoulders or axes to grind. An intricate and organized bureaucracy has existed here for centuries, yet it has been a flexible one that never condemned itself to the wrong side of history by resisting Western technology. In modern times Siam became Thailand, the word "Thai" loosely associated with the notion of a "free people." The Thais established a constitutional monarchy after a military intervention in 1932 and have retained it despite numerous subsequent coups.
Thailand hasn't collapsed. It still is the beneficiary of geography and a more or less unified ethnic makeup. It is also a place where commercial interests and Theravada, or "lesser" Buddhism, with a marked Indian influence, help make for an open and congenial national culture and service economy, emphasizing moderation and compromise. But the downfall of regional communism and the resulting transition away from the military-led Cold War regime has yet to run its course. The result has been a more complex polity than the one that existed in the 1960s and 1970s -- and one in which compromise is lacking.
Indeed, Thailand provides a case study in how economic prosperity leads to new social and political demands and, in turn, to unrest. The wealthier a society becomes, the more complicated the rivalry of interests becomes and the harder old institutions must struggle to evolve. From the 1960s to the Asian financial crisis (which began in Thailand in 1997), Thailand saw yearly average real gross domestic product growth of more than 7 percent. The public's rejection of a military junta in 1992 created a new era in politics, with the military retreating from its former dominance and a new corporate elite emerging to take advantage of government contracts and booming asset prices.
Enter Thaksin Shinawatra, an overnight telecommunications tycoon who was elected prime minister in 2001 and who predicted two decades of ascendancy for his party until he was overthrown by the army in 2006. Thaksin came armed with more charisma than anyone in the history of contemporary Thai politics other than the king himself, whose traditional support among the rural masses suddenly faced competition. Thaksin had a formidable political base: a combination of the entrepreneurial nouveau riche, a new wave of nationalists who rejected Western economic encroachment in the form of unbridled capital flows and the International Monetary Fund, and a rural peasantry laboring with low incomes and inadequate social services. In the eyes of peasants and small business owners, Thaksin promised to reassert Thailand's ancient independent spirit by providing debt relief, reforming the economy and redistributing wealth away from the Bangkok elite, who seemed to pander to the West. Thaksin demanded cheap healthcare, cheap loans and other rural subsidies -- in other words, he practiced cash populism. Today his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, maintains similar policies as prime minister and leader of the Pheu Thai party, although Thaksin still guides the party behind the scenes.
Opposing Pheu Thai stands the Democrat Party, whose support base consists of the old noble and elite families and much of the military and government bureaucracy, with its center of power in Bangkok. While Pheu Thai generally dominates the north and northeast, the Democrat Party dominates the capital and the peninsular south. Since Thaksin's rise, the Democrats have not won at the voting booth and have stayed in competition only through the help of the army, the Constitutional Court and other well-established institutions that fear Thaksin's boundless ambition and electoral strength.
Although there is little ethnic or sectarian basis to these divisions, the hatred between the supporters of each party has verged on the existential. Bangkok has witnessed recurring waves of large-scale political demonstrations and security crackdowns since 2005. The red shirts worn by Pheu Thai supporters and the yellow ones of the opposition reflect a more intense division than that between red states and blue states in America because several factors have flung the country's future into the air: the military's interventions into politics, the pro-Thaksin party's efforts to remove checks and balances from the constitution and the deep anxiety over King Bhumibol's impending death. Thailand represents a cautionary tale for geopoliticians: It shows that ideological controversy can stoke geographic and economic rivalries even where ethnic and religious conflict is minimal.
While vestiges of the authoritarian Cold War regime try to fend off Thaksin's popular bid to create a one-party state, the possibility of a royal succession crisis looms. King Bhumibol is today's longest-reigning king -- he acceded to the throne in 1946. His stature, and the national unity he represents, cannot be exaggerated. His son, Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince, is in line to succeed him. But the crown prince has the widespread reputation of a playboy whose lack of gravitas could hurt the palace's authority. Some hope that the crown prince will be passed over in favor of the king's daughter, Sirindhorn, who seems more capable. In the meantime, if Thaksin's party moves too aggressively, the army may stage another coup.
The United States would denounce another Thai coup, but it would likely do nothing about it. A stable Thai ally remains in the interest of the United States, and if military rule -- provided it is temporary -- helps that goal, prudent policymakers in Washington will go along. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who have ties to the Thai economy, will come out relatively well, no matter the country's party politics. A stable Thailand is a market for Chinese business and a critical juncture for its regional infrastructure plans; a weak Thailand plays to Beijing's divide-and-conquer strategy in Southeast Asia.
Still, Thailand's internal dissensions mask a regional risk. America's oldest Asian ally faces political stalemate at the very moment Washington seeks to shore up its influence in the face of China's rise. The U.S. wants to see a politically and economically stable Southeast Asia not only for economic growth, but also to create a unified bloc in the long run that can hinder China or other trans-regional powers (excepting the United States itself). Yet Thailand's clash between traditionalism and new money may echo throughout the region. To the west, Burma has only recently begun an "opening up" process that is essential for Southeast Asian integration but that threatens to spark pent-up ethnic, religious and ideological antagonisms. To the south, Malaysia's one-party state is combating a threatening opposition movement by reviving ethnic Malay nationalism. To the east, Cambodia faces a growing trend of opposition unrest, and the Vietnamese Communist Party is wrestling with the Chinese conundrum of how to harness capitalism without losing power. Thailand proves that Southeast Asia is a region to watch. Decades of prosperity have created the conditions for political transformation -- for better and for worse.