After the Putsch Come the Punches

Why Thailand’s coup is destined to fail.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

It’s not a question if the Thai coup will go wrong; it’s a question of when, and how badly. You might think the Royal Thai Army would be good at quelling unrest by now — Thailand has been in permanent political crisis since the 2005 protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and politically unstable for most of the 20th century. But like the last coup in September 2006, the military’s May 22 seizure of power in a bloodless coup will be disastrous.

At the core of Thailand’s problems is a huge gulf between supporters of Thaksin — who was ousted in the 2006 coup and whose sister Yingluck was prime minister from 2011 until May — and those who vigorously oppose the Shinawatra clan. (Pro-Thaksin forces comprise a majority in Thailand but a minority among the Bangkok elite and the country’s middle class.)

The military claimed it needed to avert potential violence and bring together two warring factions that had paralyzed the country’s government since November. Although coups are going out of style in much of the world, the Thais still know how to stage them brilliantly: take over the TV stations, earn praise for rescuing the nation from disorder, and receive instant global media attention. Indeed, for the first time in several months, Bangkok is largely clear of street protests — creating the impression of a return to normalcy.

That illusion, however, will not last. For better or worse, Thais have the world’s lowest political boredom threshold. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has alternated between spells of parliamentary rule and periods of military dictatorship; electoral politics have been gaining ground since the late 1970s, but the monarchical network has consistently exercised behind-the-scenes power in shaping governing regimes. Since the 1991 coup, there have been no less than 13 prime ministers (not including several acting ones), three military coups, 10 general elections, four constitutions (not counting the interim ones), and six rounds of massive street protests.

Thailand’s military deserves much of the blame. Seizing power is glamorous and exciting — the dream of every young cadet who graduates from Thailand’s Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, the Army’s officer training academy. But after the putsch come the punches: the daily hard knocks of running a country and facing continual criticism. Far from being smiling, passive, and deferential to authority (like the tourism authority would have you believe), Thailand’s 69 million people are some of the most politicized and polarized people on the planet. The notion that they are going to embrace peace and orderliness on the instructions of a few guys in uniform is a joke. Thais like the rhetoric of order and enjoy the idea of a strong leader, but the novelty wears off once they have had a few weeks of stiff military paternalism. Already, Thais are finding novel ways to demonstrate displeasure with their new rulers.

Unfortunately, the military does not seem to understand this. Thai generals experience little criticism during their professional lives. Socialized into military culture from the day they enter pre-cadet school at age 15, they can look forward to a 45-year career in the Army. Thailand has one of the world’s largest contingents of serving generals — around 1,500 across the three services, from a total military personnel of just over 300,000. Many of them have literally nothing to do except dabble in business and meddle in politics. Surrounded by yes men for most of their lives, they are ill-equipped to run real businesses or assume ministerial, political, or other public offices. The Thai Army is a uniformed bureaucracy that has not fought a real war since playing a supporting role to the Americans in Vietnam.

The commander of the Royal Thai Army (in practice senior to the notionally higher-ranking supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces) can enjoy pronouncing loftily on the foibles of elected politicians and setting himself up as a moral arbiter. Back in December, before the armed government takeover, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha declared that the military will uphold a balanced stance that doesn’t erode its goal of fostering love and unity among Thais, according to the Bangkok Post. He added, "Soldiers will always belong to the nation, religion, and the people." After a coup, however, the Army chief’s moral authority and pontification capacity quickly wanes, as the professed goal of encouraging love and unity grows more elusive.

Immediately after seizing power, Prayuth appointed himself the interim prime minister, thereby making himself a lightning rod for all complaints. If he’s wise, he’ll select a civilian to fill those shoes as soon as possible. The 1991 coup group smartly picked respected former ambassador to the United States and royal confidant Anand Panyarachun to handle all the ensuing grief. Anand was able to win over the international community and take the pressure off the generals — at least for a while.

However, by contrast, the 2006 coup plotters chose badly, handing power to a former Army chief, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who soon acquired a well-deserved reputation for dithering and lack of focus. The result was a rapid decline in the coup’s popularity. Likewise, today Prayuth is looking dangerously exposed, trying to front the whole coup himself rather than presenting it as a team effort.

In 1991, the coup-makers were initially viewed as dashing, even romantic figures, especially Supreme Commander Sunthorn Kongsompong, a smooth-talking cavalry officer who played well on TV. Their post-coup honeymoon period lasted for around four months, until it became increasingly obvious that his charmless colleague, Army chief Suchinda Kraprayoon, was eyeing a key role for himself in the post-electoral order. When Suchinda elbowed his way into the premiership in 1992, he triggered mass protests, shootings, and a royal intervention — King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned both Suchinda and the main protest leader for a dressing-down — that helped force him out of office. Suchinda remains widely reviled, though his missteps helped pave the way for a progressive "people’s constitution" in 1997.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, probably the most likable Army commander of the past few decades, staged the 2006 coup. But even he soon realized that he could never parlay the coup into a bid for longer-term political office and that eradicating Thaksin’s influence and remarkably resilient voter support was impossible. Initially popular with many Bangkokians, Sonthi’s nice-guy coup slowly degenerated into a catalog of popular frustrations and disappointments, and pro-Thaksin parties staged a successful comeback in the subsequent election.

A coup turns the tables on top generals in ways they do not enjoy. Soon their misery begins to infect the wider population, which starts to yearn again for political leaders the people can more easily eject from office. Thai coup-makers now in power would do best to scale back their own visibility, appoint a civilian prime minister and cabinet to take pressure off the junta, and plan for a speedy departure.

Prayuth shows no sign so far that he grasps an
y of this. He may even believe that he should stay prime minister. If so, he should think again; the same people who are right now celebrating his bold seizure of power will very soon want to see the back of him.

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