Red, Yellow, Green: the Traffic Light of Thai Politics

Thai politics is a colorful affair, both literally and figuratively. The country’s major political forces are characterized by their color; what “color” you are in relation to others can determine how far you get in life. It could be argued that the three colors — red, yellow and green — represent for Thai politics the same thing they do to motorists: stop, slow down, and go.

BACKGROUND

The ‘Reds’ refer to a political pressure group called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and their affiliated representatives in parliament under the leftist, populist ‘Phuea Thai’ (‘For Thais’) Party. Their ranks consist mainly of rural farmers, but have recently swelled with students, leftist activists and young entrepreneurs who despise the elite. Red represents, as it usually does internationally, left-wing ideas and the toppling of the upper class.

Yellow, on the other hand, is the King’s color, representing loyalty to the Thai crown.  The ‘Yellows’ formed as a reactionary group in opposition to the Reds, manifesting mainly as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) political group. They are primarily composed of royalists and members of the upper middle class. Unlike their opponents, they are not as closely entwined with their associated party — the centre-right, pro-business ‘Prachathipat’ (Democrat) Party.

Both the Reds and the Yellows initially coalesced due to the actions of one man: Thaksin Shinawatra. As Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006, he used his considerable reach to galvanise the rural population, leading to the formation of l which formed the the Reds. This, in turn, centralized the country's left, leading to the formation of the Yellows. In the past decade, the two factions have had a markedly violent presence. Mass protests have quickly escalated into riots, turning the capital city of Bangkok into an informal arena for political conflict (and leading to frequent shutdowns).  This violence has culminated in two military coups, one in 2006 and another in 2014.

This is where the ‘Greens’ come in. “Green” is an informal nickname for the Royal Thai Armed Forces, and in particular the Army. The first attempted coup in Thailand was planned by army officers in 1912. Since then, there have been twenty coups in Thailand, of which fifteen were conducted by military personnel or officers-cum-politicians with the backing of the “‘Greens.” The 2014 coup put a stopper on the rapidly-escalating conflict between the Reds and Yellows. It also established the "National Peace and Order Maintaining Council," a military junta headed by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, which Amnesty International has described as “draconian” for its abuse of emergency powers.

ECONOMIC OVERVIEW

The population of Thailand was and still is largely made up of rural peasants, typically rice farmers. At one point, their presence was evenly spread out across the country. Recently, however, there has been a trend towards urbanisation. The urban population shot from a mere 20% in 1960 to over 52% today.

Bangkok easily dwarfs all other urban centres in terms of importance. It is home to over 34% of the entire country’s population (not counting those who officially live on farmsteads but spend a large portion of their year in the city, commuting home only to harvest their crops). The capital also contains the houses of parliament, the institutions of the monarchy, and the major commercial, corporate and financial headquarters, as well as the central military authority. Around a third of the country’s GDP comes from Bangkok’s economic output, and on average city residents enjoy a per capita GDP around three times than that of the national mean.

THE PAST DECADE

There has always been a great deal of political conflict between the diametrically opposed Reds and Yellows. The 2006 military coup was essentially brought about by the PAD, who challenged Thaksin’s power to the extent that the army took over until 2008. The damage, however, had already been done –– the urban-rural schism was now split wide open, and the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin factions were left to pick up the pieces. The pro-Thaksin faction, which would loosely unite itself as the ‘Reds’ (commonly known as ‘Red Shirts’, for the uniform of their protestors) eventually won out.

Thaksin himself, who was exiled following the coup, returned and pledged his support for the People’s Power Party, the Red-aligned precursor to Phuea Thai. After a period of Prime Minister turnover which would have made the Roman Republic blush, the Yellow-backed Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva became Prime Minister. This began the Red Shirt Protests, wherein the followers of Thaksin took to the streets in droves to protest Abhisit’s governance. 

Under the guidance of the PAD, the “Yellows” (commonly known as “Yellow Shirts” for the same reason as the Red Shirts) began a long and gruelling counter-campaign, leading to much unrest and disruption with the increasingly bitter conflict. The end of Abhisit’s tenure was supposed to bring about stability. Instead, the highly contentious Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, at the head of Phuea Thai, took power. Yingluck’s government was marred by controversy after controversy, scandal after scandal. The 2014 takeover of the government by General Prayuth was certainly not unexpected. It forced the Reds and Yellows to retreat back into the woodwork, waiting for the promised transfer of power from the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council back to the civilian government.

Although they were ostensibly for the decentralisation of power, the Reds helped lead Thailand to stagnation. This is because they either blindly followed a member of the business elite rather than the political establishment (Thaksin; a story which should sound rather familiar to any American reader) or had a leader (Yingluck) whose policies crippled the Thai economy, cost the government untold billions of baht and, perhaps worst of all, caused the Thailand’s fall as the global leader in rice exports. Their platform is one which runs contrary to their leadership’s end goals. Many of their former supporters have been made aware of this fact, signaling uncertainty for their post-junta future. "Red," therefore, means "stop" for this flagging political faction that whipped up fervour against an enemy it helped comprise, and generally led to economic ruin for the country.

This is, of course, not to say that the Yellows can be absolved of everything. While the economy began to recover under Abhisit, his inaction during the 2008-2011 Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt riots is often described as one of his - and by extension, the Yellows’ - greatest failures. In the end, he also did not bring stability to the country and lost the subsequent election to Yingluck. The Yellows’ desire to centralise political and financial power in Bangkok has also led to the deepening of an unspoken, longstanding schism between the urban and rural populations, one which fueled the peasants’ desire for change, which they saw in the Reds.

Furthermore, the Yellows’ royalism, which borders at times on ultra nationalism, has not done any favors for the still young and immature institution of democracy in Thailand. It has instead lead to the decline of democratic ideals in the country. Thus, "Yellow" means "slow down."  While the group does not present nearly as much damage to the national economy as its opponents do, it nonetheless maintains a status quo which will be very difficult to break out of in the future.

Finally, the role of the military, the ever-present force, can be discussed. With a strong tradition of warrior-Kings, the Thai army has always been seen as the right arm of the monarchy. Barring the coups which gave birth to Thailand from the embers of Siam, the Greens have, for the most part, been the arbiters (or, to use an alternate characterisation, vultures) of political conflicts. Their interventions in 2006 and 2014 exemplify this, establishing their dominance through violence in tumultuous times. The National Order and Peace Maintaining Council and the military governments before them have committed untold numbers of human rights violations and abuses of power, such as using the clause of the Thai penal code which forbids insulting the monarch to arrest anyone who threatens their authority. Despite this, the majority of Thai people (who actively try not to commit such offences) do not appear to chafe under the junta.

For the average Thai citizen, stability has become one of the most important things a government can provide for its people. After the 2014 coup, few challenged the military takeover. We were a people exhausted from nearly a decade of political conflicts, riots and massive social disturbances. We wanted peace and quiet – and the military provided just that. Thus, despite all common sense suggesting the contrary, "Green" means "go." Is it a permanent solution? Of course not. The mandate of the people will always prevail once the military’s hold weakens. However, if only for now, even if it means staring down the barrel of a rifle or at a column of tanks, the people and the country can finally move past politics and start rebuilding.