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Interview: Thai Democracy Is Gone and Won’t Return Anytime Soon

When Thai military leaders ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra six months ago, their real target was the enduring influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted in a 2006 coup. Thaksin, also a former prime minister, is admired by the rural poor for his social welfare programs but despised by ...

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

When Thai military leaders ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra six months ago, their real target was the enduring influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted in a 2006 coup.

Thaksin, also a former prime minister, is admired by the rural poor for his social welfare programs but despised by the traditional urban middle class and elite, who accuse him of vote-buying, extrajudicial killings in a war on drugs, and disrespect for the country's revered monarchy. During his time in office, Thaksin stoked a conflict between these groups that has continued to rage even after he fled the country and went into self-imposed exile.

Yingluck was forced to step down in May, shortly before Thailand's 12th successful coup since doing away with absolute monarchy in 1932. The military putsch appeared to be aimed at re-establishing elite control over a political system that had been moving toward empowering Thais in rural areas and the country's north and northeast.

When Thai military leaders ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra six months ago, their real target was the enduring influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted in a 2006 coup.

Thaksin, also a former prime minister, is admired by the rural poor for his social welfare programs but despised by the traditional urban middle class and elite, who accuse him of vote-buying, extrajudicial killings in a war on drugs, and disrespect for the country’s revered monarchy. During his time in office, Thaksin stoked a conflict between these groups that has continued to rage even after he fled the country and went into self-imposed exile.

Yingluck was forced to step down in May, shortly before Thailand’s 12th successful coup since doing away with absolute monarchy in 1932. The military putsch appeared to be aimed at re-establishing elite control over a political system that had been moving toward empowering Thais in rural areas and the country’s north and northeast.

Read more from FP on Thailand After the Coup

Since then, a conservative military-led regime has clamped down on civil society, restricting freedom of assembly and the press, and ramped up prosecutions of alleged insults to the ailing king under Thailand’s notoriously harsh lèse-majesté laws. After protesters adopted the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movie franchise as a symbol of protest, the regime pressured movie theaters not to show the series’ latest film and banned the gesture.

Thongchai Winichakul has been watching these developments with dismay. A leading scholar of Thai history, Thongchai witnessed a previous military crackdown firsthand as a student and pro-democracy activist. In October 1976, the military seized power and brutally suppressed a protest at Thongchai’s university. Thongchai was arrested and remained in prison for nearly two years before being freed to finish his degree. Thai authorities barred him from further political activities.

After obtaining his diploma, he moved to Australia for graduate studies and wrote a key work on Thai history, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, which political theorist Benedict Anderson cited extensively in recent revised editions of his landmark book Imagined Communities. Now a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thongchai spoke to Foreign Policy about Thailand’s latest military government and the bleak prospects of the country returning to a truly democratic system anytime soon.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

FP: John Sifton of Human Rights Watch recently wrote that Thailand’s other recent coups, in 1991 and 2006, were "short-lived ‘resets,’" but that it looks like this latest coup, like some during the Cold War, will have longer-lasting effects. What do you think of this take?

TW: Well, let’s put it this way: I’m not sure the current junta will stay in power for long. But even if this group is out, it doesn’t mean that Thailand will return to the kind of electoral democracy seen before 2006. I think the effects of this coup will stay with Thailand for a long time. People keep talking about how many coups, how many constitutions, but as far as I see it, three coups so far have been more important than the others. Most coups have been elite factional fighting, so they could last long or not but don’t change things much.

This latest coup is one of the three, I believe, where the elite fighting is just the tip of the iceberg. The coup in 1957, the coup in 1976, and this one: These three are about much deeper structural conflicts. They are a reflection of class conflict.

The rise of a new urban, formerly rural, sector — this kind of social structural change is in conflict with the existing political system. People who are newly urban become charged with energy for electoral democracy, in conflict with the political system where the network of the monarchy is kind of dominant within the elite, which never trusts electoral democracy.

FP: How did this conflict play out in the three coups you mentioned?

TW: The coup in ’57 reflected the way that Thai society after World War II had changed a lot. It was not a small state controlled by a few people anymore. Some parties were more liberal, and the military was not happy. It was the beginning of the Cold War, too. America intervened particularly heavily in the late ’50s. So the ’57 coup became a historic turning point toward a more conservative, anti-communist period.

In the ’70s, there was a changing situation in terms of a bigger urban sector, a bigger middle class, and an uprising of students, intellectuals, and others in the middle class. The ’76 coup was a reaction against that. But in the ’70s, democracy remained mostly limited to Bangkok. People did not enjoy the benefits of electoral democracy throughout the country.

This time, it’s spread all over the country. It’s spread to people in the north, where in the ’70s they didn’t really care about politics, to people in the rural sector. They’re now engaged and vote, and they want the benefits of electoral democracy. But the Bangkok middle class has resisted and become kind of conservative, because they want to preserve their own power.

FP: What do you think of the idea that Thailand appears unable to become a functioning democracy?

TW: The fact that Thailand was never formally colonized — I hate to say this, but it has a downside. The Thai ruling class was never swept away. Thailand has never had the experience of radical revolution. The same elite ruling class and their orthodox culture adapted in a way that didn’t hurt their power. So the same elites were the ones who tried to modernize, and they became a kind of gateway to the discourse of modernity. In fact, this is still the attitude of the anti-democracy elite today.

FP: How much is your analysis informed by your experience as a pro-democracy activist who was imprisoned after the 1976 coup?

TW: People who don’t like me always say I’m too strongly biased against the monarchy. I don’t believe so. I think my experience means I don’t have illusions like most Thai people about the monarchy, but I don’t think it’s a strong bias, and I never take this personally. I see them just like any other political force.

FP: How would you compare the atmosphere after the most recent coup to the clampdown you experienced as a pro-democracy activist in 1976?

TW: 1976 was much worse. But it’s hard to compare. I thought that by the ’80s, the ’90s, Thailand had come a long way. I couldn’t believe a coup could roll back so many things. I’ve got to believe that even those people that called for the coup — those people who hate Thaksin so much — I want to believe that even they are now not really happy with this coup regime, because the conservatives are rolling back so much. It’s so stupid! For example, they’re making the school kids memorize the "12 Thai values" and to recite them every morning. It’s stupid.

They’re also rolling back the work for decentralization that has been going on since the ‘70s to end the system by which district heads and village heads can be in power forever, and to make the village system a mechanism for decentralization. Many parties, many intellectuals, many NGOs, fought for this for 30 years until reforms were introduced in the 1997 constitution. One of this coup’s orders was to suspend the whole system of decentralization through the districts. So now what people fought step by step to change has gone back to a system designed in 1893. That is how conservative it is.

FP: How much was this recentralization order aimed at reining in the country’s north and northeast due to those regions’ support for the Shinawatra family?

TW: I believe that is the reason. They looked for a system to control the north and northeast.

FP: What form do you think this conflict will take going forward?

TW: I think the conflict will go on indefinitely, but I’m not sure what form it will take. The value of electoral democracy has been discredited so much. Regardless of what happens, I believe that electoral democracy like what was seen before 2006 will not return for a while. I believe that there will be some kind of "guided democracy," to use the leadership’s term, and a new election will be heavily controlled by the monarchists, with maybe an appointed upper house, or half of the upper house appointed. Even the lower house could be to some extent appointed, or reduced in size. Or there could be some kind of system that reduces the votes of people in the north and northeast. It’s not a formal proposal, but it’s been proposed to have one MP per province. The northeast has a huge population, so this would reduce that region’s representation.

This analysis, though, doesn’t take into account two other things that could happen tomorrow: the king dying, and revolution. Even though there is deep structural conflict, I don’t believe we can say when a revolution is coming.

FP: When did you realize how significant this latest coup was?

TW: I have warned since last December that a coup was possible, and that if it happened, it would be harsh and unlike most other coups, partly because of the failure, in the conservatives’ view, of the 2006 coup [which ousted Thaksin but didn’t eradicate his influence].

If the king were still young and healthy, maybe the royalists would feel they could fight electoral democracy without staging a coup. But with the uncertainty about who will succeed the king, they felt they had to strike first. If the conservatives allowed free and fair elections, they would lose.

But the structural change, in terms of people now being educated about electoral democracy, cannot be rolled back. The conservative side still believes Thailand is a kind of extended version of a small village. They believe that a good authoritarian father has the virtue to guide people to goodness. That’s impossible. Thailand has developed so much that democracy in one form or another is needed, because they must allow people to negotiate their different interests. I believe that democracy is not West or East. Whenever a society becomes more complex, at a certain point, people’s differences in interests are so great that it’s impossible to contain. Democracy is the only good system for that kind of complex society.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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