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Why Thailand shouldn’t be afraid of the f-word

The political mercury is soaring again in Thailand, but this time it is not only a matter of wearing the right color on your shirt. Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha’s tougher stance is now directed towards the so-called “Lanna separatism” issue.

Olivier Languepin

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The political mercury is soaring again in Thailand, but this time it is not only a matter of wearing the right color on your shirt. Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha’s tougher stance is now directed towards the so-called “Lanna separatism” issue.

Petchawat Wattanapongsirikul, a core Red Shirt leader of the “Rak Chiang Mai 51” group, now faces charges of separatism upon accusation by the Royal Thai army. He said that he was misrepresented and misunderstood, but the mere fantasy of an independentist movement in the northern part of Thailand has instantly put the generals on their toes.

The northern Red Shirts have used the separatist stance  to send a clear message to opponents of the government : they will rise up if Yingluck Shinawatra is toppled and an unelected prime minister is put in her place.

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Although Red Shirt leaders have dispelled the allegations that they want to split the country to form an independent state known as the Lanna People’s Democratic Republic, the debate is now simmering on top of the current political crisis.

Indeed the question is a sensitive one in Thailand, because the monarchy has reached its pinnacle under king Chulalongkorn who both established the basis of the kingdom of Thailand has a legal centralized entity, and took control over the Lanna Kingdom.

The Lanna Kingdom eventually became part of Siam in 1892, after having requested assistance from Siam to fight the Burmese occupation. The Lanna Kingdom was gradually dissolved and condensed into a 20,000 km² area centered around Chiang Mai. In 1932 the whole Chiang Mai area officially became a province of Siam.

The answer to this problem does not have to be either separatism or unionism : it can also be a form of federalism, even though federalism as a word is not part of the political vocabulary in Thailand.

But federalist stances have been common issues, especially in old kingdoms moving towards more democratic rules : Thailand does not have to become a former Yugoslavia to deal with its multi ethnic historical roots.

Even in Europe the problem has not been solved in centuries :  the two EU countries facing the most imminent challenge from separatists within their borders – the UK from the Scots, and Spain from the Catalans and Basques – are old kingdoms whose unionist integration was essentially the enterprise of a strong and revered monarchy.

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