In the latter part of the 1990s, after the financial crisis of 1997, but before the ascent of Thaksin, I was occasionally asked to speak to groups of foreign investment analysts visiting Thailand. I set forth the gist of what I used to say to these analysts, as it gives context to my thoughts on the present turmoil:
Thailand is a country characterized by a high degree of ideological homogeneity, with broad consensus at all levels of society on the core values of Thailand and on what it means to be a Thai. This consensus includes veneration of the king, a leading role for the Buddhist religion, adherence to a free market economic system, support for a hierarchical society that emphasizes respect for superiors and seniors, provides an elevated position in society for Army, civil servants and police, and by implication leaves control of the nation in the hands of an establishment that sits at the top levels of the social pyramid. Over the decades, this establishment has instilled this view of the nation throughout all levels of society, with inculcation starting in the schools and reinforced continually through media, portraits of the royal family, etc. To dissent from the main elements of this consensus is to be “Un-Thai”. In fact, there have been few dissenters, and those that have bucked the consensus are marginalized, either through social pressure, or through police action. This consensus has made for a stable society in which people generally accept their place in life, but which also allows for sufficient social mobility to accommodate the bright and ambitious. Considerable economic development has occurred under this consensus and stability, and as a result the lot of poor villagers has improved substantially over the past half-century. The fears of many that communism would engulf the nation, as it had China and Indochina, have proven unwarranted.
This stable consensus has benefited the elite levels of society, a few thousand members of which control what happens in the country. This elite occupies the key positions in the bureaucracy, the military, police, business establishment (particularly banks), and clergy, in both Bangkok and in provincial cities(…)