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The Strange Elite Politics Behind Thailand’s Military Coup

The Strange Elite Politics Behind Thailand’s Military Coup

Thailand’s modern era has now seen so many coups that scholars have lost count. On Thursday, the Thai military once more overthrew the government, marking the 12th coup since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. But between the failed coups, aborted putsches, and successful revolts, scholars don’t really know many times a Thai government has experienced a violent challenge to its rule.

"Please share your knowledge to help us count Thailand’s military coups once-and-for-all," Nicholas Farrelly, a Southeast Asia scholar and a professor at Australian National University, wrote on the website New Mandala this week.

Despite robust economic growth and fitful steps toward full democratization, Thailand can’t seem to escape from under the shadow of its long history of military coups. Prior to this week’s events, which saw the military first impose martial law and then remove the government outright, the last coup occurred in 2006, when the army ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This time around, it’s Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her political allies who find themselves in the military’s cross-hairs.

With soldiers surrounding government buildings and tanks parked in the streets of Bangkok, the Thai military is casting itself as a purveyor of order. "In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again?.?.?.?and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power," Gen. Prayuth Chan-ochoa said in a televised address to the nation.

The military has also detained politicians on either side of the country’s political divide, including the prominent protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which allows it to claim a patina of neutrality in Thailand’s increasingly bitter political sparring. Thailand’s aggressive anti-government protesters have succeeded in sowing chaos in the run-up to the coup, carrying out protests for the last six months and clashing violently with the government. At least 25 people have died and images of streets shut down by protesters have only reinforced Thailand’s image as as a tinderbox of Southeast Asia. As a result, revenue from tourism, a crucial sector of the economy, has seen a marked decline.

In carrying out a coup and deploying soldiers to the streets, the Thai army has at least brought that unrest to an end. As has occurred with previous Thai coups, the return to order on the streets will surely be enough to lead some to call Thursday’s events "good coup." That would be a mistake.

We’ve often written about the concept of a so-called "democratic coup" here at Foreign Policy, and this isn’t one. If the notion of a democratic coup sounds oxymoronic, consider the examples Ozan Varol, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, cites in his research on the matter: the Turkish coup of 1960 that saw the overthrow of the Democrat Party, which had cracked down on civil and press rights; the 1974 coup in Portugal that saw the end of the Estado Novo military government; and the 2011 coup that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The last example illustrates how fraught the concept of a democratic coup remains. In the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, Egyptian voters elected a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, as the country’s new president. Morsi himself was removed from power a short time later after millions of protesters took to the streets to decry his government and accuse it of trying to impose theocratic law. Three years later, Morsi is facing criminal charges, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been imprisoned, and Egypt is hurtling toward what increasingly appears likely to become a new military dictatorship.

Varol defines a "democratic coup" according to the following criteria:

(1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (2) the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime; (3) the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising; (4) the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; (5) the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (6) the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and (7) the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders

On point one, it fails for Thailand: The ousted government was democratically elected and had taken steps to reconcile with the protest movement by promising new elections. And while the military certainly responded to popular opposition, the governing coalition’s ability to consistently win popular elections would point to their support among the people. On point three, the government had called for new elections in response to the protests. On point four, it depends on whom you ask. On the fifth criteria, the answer is an obvious no. And on points six and seven, it remains to be seen — and the country’s long history of coups certainly doesn’t point toward an answer in the affirmative.

But there’s a more important reason why Thailand will probably never see a democratic coup: its Borgian elite politics that made military intervention an accepted tool of maintaining the elite’s grip on power.  The current political stand-off centers on the enduring political divide between the country’s elite and a political movement led by the Shinawatra clan and with its powerbase in rural areas. Shinawatra’s populist political movement has redistributed power in Thailand away from the elite networks that dominate the capital, and this has made the country’s army officers, judges, monarchists, and bureaucrats profoundly worried. The only problem is that Bangkok’s elites are completely incapable of cobbling together an electoral coalition capable of winning a national election.

In a fascinating 2013 paper Farrelly — yes, the poor scholar asking for your help tallying Thailand’s coups — paints a portrait of a craven Thai elite that gladly sends the military into the streets for motives both nefarious and underhanded. Farrelly quotes a 1972 article that describes a coup of the previous year. It could just as well have run today:

The actual causes of the [November 17, 1971] coup lay in Thailand’s factional politics, the legislative threat to bureaucratic privilege, and pressure from younger military officers to do away with the trappings of democracy to protect their own political power base.

While Thailand’s king is a revered figure, the country’s elite has come to use him as a pawn in their attempts to hold on to power. Farrelly argues that Thailand’s coup culture is largely centered around the idea of protecting the king, the threats to whom are mostly manufactured reasons to send tanks into the streets. But the safety of the monarchy has nonetheless become a rhetorical gloss whose continued deployment provides the basis of an elite culture all too willing to use the military to achieve its political goals.

Indeed, on Thursday Gen. Prayuth assured Thailand that the military "will protect and worship the monarchy."

The same can’t be said about t
he country’s struggling democracy.