TIME Thailand

Could El Niño–Linked Droughts Lead to Political Unrest in Thailand?

Oxen are seen beside a dry canal in Nakhonsawan province
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters Oxen are seen beside a dry canal in Nakhonsawan province, in Thailand, on Jan. 23, 2016. Thai authorities are rushing to drill thousands of wells across the country as farmers grapple with a drought

Some analysts are talking of a "potential powder keg" in early 2016

The dramatic weather patterns linked to the El Niño phenomenon could also have ramifications for politics in Southeast Asia.

The region’s second biggest economy, Thailand, is experiencing one of its worst droughts in years. To be sure, drought is a regular occurrence and those in recent years have been particularly severe. (The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that Thailand’s rice exports for 2015 fell by 12% thanks to weak monsoon rains, reaching the lowest level since 2004.) But the present drought comes just as the country’s military junta is facing what could be a perfect storm of political and economic pressures.

Northern and eastern provinces have been hardest hit and farmers have been subjected to government restrictions on water use for two years running. Many people in these areas are the “Red Shirt” supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon from the north of the country who has dominated electoral politics in Thailand for the past 15 years.

The country is currently run by a military general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who leads a junta that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in a May 2014 coup, immediately scrapping a rice-subsidy scheme that was beset by corruption allegations.

But Prayuth could now find himself under scrutiny over the drought, which is likely to continue at least until May. While more wells are being drilled to ease the water shortage, Reuters says, the junta is unlikely to dish out the subsidies and handouts to which the country’s rural poor became accustomed under populist former rulers like the Shinawatras.

Prayuth has even suggested that provinces are declaring drought in order to receive government aid. “How can the whole province have no water?” he asked in a regular radio address, according to the Bangkok Post.

Analysts at Global Risk Insights have predicted political unrest, arguing that the droughts — along with weakening global demand for rubber, one of Thailand’s main cash crops — make for “a potential powder keg” in Thailand in early 2016.

“Angry farmers nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ can directly blame [Prayuth] Chan-ocha for the end of that era,” Global Risk Insights said in a briefing. “Add to this historical rural resentment of their political exclusion by the military and its urban support base and instability is very likely.”

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