The countries of Southeast Asia are planning to integrate their region in 2015. Meanwhile, in the dynamic city of Bangkok, the government of Thailand seems to be heading in the opposite direction, as recent protests have entered a ”shut down” phase.

This was the political atmosphere when I recently visited Bangkok to attend a conference on the ethics of food. At that time, street demonstrations were forming after weeks of smaller actions around ministries in this leading Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) city of 10 million citizens. Reports began to come across my tablet, as I sat pondering the role of agriculture in Thailand and ASEAN during the conference

At first I did not connect the protests with the topic of the conference. The protestors seemed to be engaged in a struggle with the government over how the Thai people operate their political system. But Thailand is a major food exporter, and agriculture is a mainstay of the economy. As such, Thai farmers play a key role in the country’s governance. Moreover, both agriculture and governance are central features of the regional integration of ASEAN.

Currently, Thai people on various sides of the issue of governance are fighting over political control and budget priorities, which have been a subject of conflict for a decade. They are also operating in a larger context where power is shifting around in the local, the national, and the regional arenas. “The capital has been the center of political power, where the upper and middle classes claim political power over the country, including the rural areas,” observes Thai scholar and former diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University. “This has caused much tension.”

Red vs. Yellow

Since 2006, Thailand has experienced a number of changes in government due to a conflict between two powerful groups, generally called the yellow shirts and the red shirts. In 2006, a military coup removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is generally supported by the red shirts, while he was out of the country on official business in England.

The red shirts believe that proper governing structures should be legitimized through electoral democracy by and for the interests of the people. The yellow shirts, on the other hand, generally support what they see as traditional, authority-based ruling structures. They favor a ruling council appointed on the basis of morality. The media generally represents the yellow side as a Bangkok elite that includes the middle class, and the red side as a popular movement of farmers, fisherfolk, students, and others. The categorizations are by no means absolute.

After the forced removal of Thaksin – Thai politicians are often referred to by their first name – martial law eventually gave way to a civilian government. Later, Thaksin was found guilty in absentia. The charge was corruption. According to the verdict of the nine-judge panel, “Thaksin violated the article of the constitution on conflict of interest [in land and business dealings], as he was then prime minister and head of a government and was supposed to work for the benefit of the public.” Thaksin immediately countered that the charges were politically motivated.

The current government came to power in 2011 in a landslide led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin. One of the main actions of her administration has been to seek an amnesty law related to past political struggles, which could possibly include an amnesty for Thaksin.

“The current protests link back to the petty crimes and larger crimes of the past, especially in the 2010 protests,” explains Arthit Suriyawongkul of Thai Netizens Network. “Many on one side, the yellow shirts, are concerned that past Prime Minister Thaksin will benefit from any amnesty laws put into place. The Constitutional Court issued the Amnesty Bill and many agreed with this proclamation. Groups from every part of society came into the streets.”

The initial protest in November brought 100,000 people into the streets of Bangkok. The protests were non-violent. But similar protests in 2010 had left more than 90 people dead, as the then generally yellow-shirt-aligned government resorted to force against protestors in the streets. To defuse tensions, the current Thai government dropped the new amnesty bill. But the yellow-shirt opposition continued protesting on the grounds that the government could reintroduce the bill at any time, and therefore a change of government structure was needed.

The actions of the yellow side, including driving a tractor up to the police barricade in an effort to seize the police headquarters, provoked a response by the red shirts. “On the other side of the city, at Ramkhamhaeng University, a crowd of 100,000 met, red shirts in this case, and their message was that they wanted to show that they are still there to support the democratically elected government,” Arthit Suriyawongkul continued. “Apparently they were concerned that the military might become involved. Finally, worried about further confrontation, they decided to remain inside the stadium.”

The casualties at that point were six dead and 40 injured. A major issue for all sides were unidentified snipers positioned in various areas outside of police control. According to local sources the snipers came from extremist groups who wanted to cause further disruption; no one knows who they are. The TV news showed the military escorting the students off the campus under sniper fire.

The struggle over the political future of the country has lasted for over two months. It has been bitter and left several protestors dead. The opposition has called for Prime Minister Yingluck to resign, but she has refused. Although the government declared a state of emergency on January 22 and announced new elections as a way to quell potential violence, the protests have continued. Demanding a complete change in government, the yellow shirts boycotted the February 2 elections and physically prevented others from casting their votes, disrupting voting in dozens of districts. They have vowed to continue protesting after the election. 

Food Sovereignty, Technology, and the Economy

The current battle on the streets of Bangkok seems to focus on political governance, but the deeper cause of the unrest is a conflict over the Thai economy and the further integration of agriculture and manufacturing. In addition to feeding its own population, and as a major exporter of food, the country has a strong industrial base near Bangkok which is generally controlled, or supported by, elements of the yellow side. The red shirts, meanwhile, generally favor changes that would lead to closing the gap in wealth and power between the farmers of the north and upper classes in and around Bangkok. Moreover, the coming 2015 ASEAN Convergence overarches the drama in the capital and in some other areas of the country.

Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. It already has good infrastructure, a solid and growing manufacturing sector, and major medical facilities. For 2014, Thai rice exports alone are expected to be at around 6.5 million tons, and the nation is among the three largest exporters in the world, sometimes claiming the top spot.

But Thailand also faces significant challenges. Workers from surrounding countries, attracted by the prospect of better wages, are flowing into Bangkok, and there is a serious housing crisis. The influx of cheap labor, as economist Ha Joon Chang of Cambridge University told me in 2011, also threatens to drive down the wages of Thai people. Chang pointed out as well the Bangkok Skytrain and the new transit system to the airport can accommodate the existing level of flow of commuters, but not a sudden and large arrival of people. The current protests offer different visions of how to address these challenges – from the incomes of rice farmers to the housing for city workers.

Increasingly Thailand must balance growth and economic justice within the larger regional framework. Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Indonesia and out to the Philippines, boasts tremendous concentrations of natural resources, port locations, a growing, educated workforce, and an increasing number of English and Chinese speakers. The use of modern technologies – computers, robotics, nanotechnology – can help the region leap across the development gap, though there is also considerable market competition, regionally and globally.

Much of this high technology is already in Thailand, a hub for automotive and electronics production. As Alain Ruche, senior policy advisor at the External Service for the European Union, writes, “Thailand will be engaged politically through economic complexity.” This economic complexity, he continues, is expressed in the composition of a country’s “productive output and reflects the structures that emerge to hold and combine knowledge.” The Economic Complexity Index (ECI) expresses the richness of the product space of a given country and thus its potential for turning knowledge into the production of goods and services. Thailand ranks well in this respect, falling between the two regional powers of China and India. Thailand had a “remarkable increase in economic complexity between 1970 and 1985,” Ruche points out. “The economic complexity of that period led to better conditions for the nation.”

But will these technological changes benefit only a small number of workers and a narrow slice of the upper classes, or can the country spread the economic gains to the entire population? This is a question being worked out on the streets of Bangkok and in the conference halls of ASEAN as it prepares for the 2015 Convergence.

A Better Life for Thais

The ASEAN Convergence could indeed, and quite quickly, provide better conditions for interaction, trade, and advancement in the lives of all Thais. Better access to technologies and manufacturing through partnerships with foreign companies, along with better access to education for its citizens, would be undeniable benefits for Thailand.

At the same time, there are potential liabilities. First, there is the critical risk of loss of food sovereignty when world prices increase dramatically and various kinds of foodstuffs are exported, rather than retained for the populace at home. Currently, there is a crisis over the local price of mangosteens, which are shipped to Japan and the world market. Other inherent risks lie in transnational agreements that can force Thailand away from the provision of essential goods and services for its people in healthcare, public utilities, and local resources like water and minerals.

In a positive direction, even with the major political conflicts over the past decade, Thailand has done well economically, and could move further in this direction within ASEAN as long as Thai citizens can have an open debate over the risks. The red shirts attribute this current trend to Thaksin’s policies. His administration established universal healthcare and provided significant village-level investment that helped to create the conditions for better productivity and improve Thai competitiveness in global food markets.

But the internal political turmoil and the external pressures of the 2015 Convergence could create instability and hinder Thailand from moving forward. Thailand faces a political choice between mere procedural democracy and a true democracy that takes into account the actual interests of all the people.

The political structure is a matter for the Thai people to decide. To advance, Thailand must find a way to combine appropriate rural technologies, a manufacturing sector, and a service sector, along with tourism, into the emerging knowledge economy to create a nation that can both feed itself and the world, while also growing its ability to develop advanced technologies.

The yellow shirts are currently shutting down parts of Bangkok and the process of government itself. It will take a full debate from both colors to keep Thailand moving forward.

Layne Hartsell is a fellow at the P2P Foundation (Amsterdam) in the philosophy of technology and global justice. He is also a fellow at The Asia Institute (Seoul) in the Technology Convergence and 3E Program (Energy, Economy, and Environment) with Tsukuba University, Japan. He acts as an advisor to Living Bridges Planet (Stockholm) and works on the education of girls and women in science. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.