The coronavirus pandemic has had a mixed impact on the decades-old divide between Thailand’s opposing political camps: a pro-establishment bloc that supports monarchical rule and an anti-establishment bloc that views the political system as incompatible with democracy. Amid the current crisis, supporters of both sides have at times shared common frustrations over the inept or delayed responses of the pro-establishment government. Nonetheless, political and societal fault lines have remained in place.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed existing dynamics of polarization by creating divisions inside the pro-establishment camp. Although Thailand was the first country after China to have confirmed cases of the coronavirus on January 13, 2020, the government’s response has been sluggish and directionless, mainly because of infighting within the ruling coalition. Leaders in the public health sector, traditionally staunch allies of the establishment, advised stricter border regulations as a preventive measure, but their recommendations fell on deaf ears. Medical professionals publicly criticized the government’s negligence, resulting in further fragmentation within elite pro-establishment circles. To deal with this internal conflict, the regime eventually let the public health sector take over the policy response to the pandemic in mid-March 2020.
Meanwhile, supporters of the monarchy expected that the palace would play a larger role in alleviating crises, per the example set by the previous king. One royalist Facebook page posted an elaborate comment outlining what the king should have done for Thais in these difficult times, but has so far failed to do. This kind of overt criticism of the palace from conservative hardliners is rare and may reflect changing dynamics within the pro-establishment bloc.
As for the wider society, the government’s poor management of public health policies and the economic repercussions of the ongoing lockdown have sparked nationwide outrage across the political spectrum. In the short run, the poor have been hit hardest by the economic slowdown. However, the urban middle class, which has been a pillar of the pro-establishment camp, also will be affected over time. What is more, numerous scandals arising from governmental corruption related to the pandemic have led to outrage and growing mistrust among the middle class. In one notable scandal, a minister’s aide was allegedly involved in stockpiling and selling millions of sanitary masks to China even after the government banned the export of such masks.
Although different groups have shared grievances over the government’s handling of the crisis, the existing ideological divide has so far hindered meaningful cross-camp cooperation at both the elite and societal levels. Pro- and anti-establishment civil society groups have launched their own charitable programs, without effective coordination. Worse still, supporters of the two camps have at times discredited their opponents’ humanitarian efforts online and offline. The pandemic has also reignited debates over clashing notions of Thai identity. Anti-establishment voices have attributed the government’s poor response to the crisis to its exclusive and conservative notion of Thai identity. These criticisms have provoked pushback from pro-establishment supporters, who argue that their conception of national identity is instrumental in forging the national unity needed to get through the health crisis.
Ideological divisions also have helped create polarized attitudes toward the lockdown and the situation of vulnerable communities. Whereas the pro-establishment camp is arguably prone to support a more authoritarian approach to the lockdown and the ongoing state of emergency, liberal groups within the anti-establishment bloc argue that the health crisis should not supersede basic rights and freedoms. Similarly, those in the anti-establishment camp mostly sympathize with the poor and sometimes become disgruntled when others do not share this sentiment. In contrast, some conservatives, who view wealth as a sign of spiritual merit, disagree with the idea of providing unconditional help to the poor and instead argue that the crisis is a test of survival.
In sum, the coronavirus pandemic has neither exacerbated nor healed Thailand’s polarization. Rather, it has highlighted how deeply rooted and immensely powerful ideological cleavages are in creating divided perceptions of the reality of the crisis.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri is an associate fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.