ThailandThe world woke up yesterday to the news that the three-day-old martial law in Thailand had suddenly given birth to a coup.  Justifiably fearful that yet another democratically-elected government had been been overthrown by a right-wing oppressive regime, and oblivious to the irony that the west has recently enthusiastically endorsed the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in the Ukraine by a popular coup, the ‘pro-democracy’ west is blind to the implications of what this might mean for Thailand.  Paradoxically, many Thai will be enthusiastic that the patriotic and impartial military will be taking steps to restore stability and governance to a political process which has been paralysed by intransigence and vested interests.

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra

Our readers will be aware that the problem began some years ago when the populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001 supported by rural masses lured by the promise of agrarian reform.  The elections were possibly the most open and corruption-free elections in Thai history.

Yet allegations of corruption and abuse of power dogged his administration, which was overthrown five years later in a coup.  Shortly after that, street violence between ‘red shirts’ (Shinawtra supporters) and ‘yellow shirts’ (an alliance of royalist upper and middle class Thai, and citizens of the southern provinces) erupted.  While the violence has died down in recent years, the underlying tension has continued to simmer, and the adverse publicity has had a massive impact on the lucrative tourist industy.

Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck became Prime Minister in 2011, though widely seen as a puppet for her brother.  Protests against his influence continued and elections took place earlier this year which were boycotted by the yellow shirts who attempted to disrupt it.  Yingluck won, but of course had no popular mandate, and the constitutional court (under the influence of the yellow shirts) first declared the election invalid and then dismissed the Prime Minister for abuse of her power.

Shinawatra performs traditional public obeisance before a portrait of the King

Meanwhile there is little comment on the influence of the severely ill King Bhumipol, the world’s longest-serving monarch.  Highly revered, the King has such moral influence throughout his country that it is inconceivable the military would make a move without at least his tacit agreement.  There is little doubt that he is considering the best interests not of a class or party, but his whole country.

This has all gone on largely over the heads of the Thai church, a small group numbering less than 0.5% of the population, which consists largely of the poor and marginalised ethnic minorities who often have nothing to lose by becoming Christians.  In contrast, the dominant ethnic Thai people are uniformly buddhist and see that as part of their national identity, so it is hard for them to renounce their religion.  Yet the crackdown could have an impact both on church meetings and the activities of the many mission workers in Thailand.

While the issues involved are incredibly complex and difficult to follow, the essence is that the Thai political system is broken.  Instability, street violence and corruption have hampered Thailand’s economic development for years, and many lives have been adversely impacted in the process.  Fifteen years ago Thailand was an Asian tiger which was an example of good governance to its less effective neighbours, but it has stagnated significantly since then.

Let us all pray that this time an enduring and open political process will emerge from the crisis, which will provide a stable environment for the emergent Thai church to thrive.