Robert Kaplan, the author of our blog namesake, once said that it is development, not poverty, that leads to unrest and upheaval.
If you look at the decades in France, before the French Revolution and the decades in Mexico before the Mexican Revolution, you will find there were periods of uncommon economic growth and social change. What happens is that development leads to rising expectations that overwhelm governments and regimes and lead to tumultuous change. It is precisely because we have seen so much dramatic uplifting development with the creation of new middle classes in places as far flung as Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. We are probably in for about a decade or so of really tumultuous, sometimes violent, political upheaval. Remember that the terrorist of September 11th and the recent suicide bombers in Israel were not sons of poverty. They were all sons of the new middle class.
Today we’re seeing major unrest in Thailand. Yet this is not a poor nation. Thailand has been one of the most prosperous countries in Southeast Asia (outside of Singapore) for a good decade, and Bangkok is now a modern city with skyscrapers and even a new public transportation network. They weathered the 1997 Asian crisis rather well. But all of sudden we’re hearing of death and destruction in the Muslim South (Thailand is more than 90% Buddhist). More than 400 people have died this year, most recently when 78 suffocated while being kept in trucks in military custody. The government blames Islamic separatists. Muslim leaders cite discrimination and heavy-handed tactics by officials.
Now Buddhists are fearing reprisals, and several have been shot in the past few days. Prime Minister Thaksin visited the area this week, attending a Buddhist temple and told everyone to calm down. Hopefully. But two Buddhists were shot dead just hours before he arrived. Thailand’s Muslims have even taken note of the notoriety of beheadings in Iraq and have copied the tactic. This is not good news for tourism, one of Thailand’s biggest sources of revenue, which is sure to slide as a result of all this.