Thailand is a prosperous nation with strong banks, modern factories, flourishing tourism, a growing middle class and other typical markers of a successful democracy. Which is exactly what it lacks. Thailand has had so many coups in its modern history that scholars sometimes refer to the last 82 years as its “coup season.” In between, violent political strife has been chronic. The latest round features deadly street clashes, politically tainted corruption trials and the army taking control after an election derailed by protests. In contrast to political activists almost everywhere, the ones in Thailand are demanding less democracy.
Thailand’s army seized power in a military coup May 22 after months of street demonstrations against the elected government. The military junta says a new election could be held in late 2015, provided the nation’s decade-long political divide can be healed. Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by the Constitutional Court and the last election, Feb. 2, was blocked by anti-government groups. They faced the mainly rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted in the last coup in 2006 but directed policy from abroad through his sister and her Pheu Thai party. The protests began in October against an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, after his conviction in 2008. They evolved into a wider push to upend Thaksin’s electoral dominance, which is based, the protesters claim, on vote-buying and favors for the poor. Subsidies for rice farmers helped Thaksin and his allies win the last five elections with support from the vast northeast of the country. His opponents include civil servants, middle-aged royalists and supporters of the Democrat party, which led a court-installed government during the last deadly uprising in 2010. Political violence has killed at least 25 people since November.
Thailand has had a dozen coups since the country’s seven-century reign of kings ended with a bloodless 1932 coup that turned the Kingdom of Siam into a constitutional monarchy. The economy was kick-started by U.S. economic aid that rewarded Thailand’s postwar campaign against communism, then propelled by Japanese and European manufacturers tapping Thai workers to make cars and disc drives for world markets. Successive governments met early ends at the hands of the military or the courts, which see themselves as protectors of the people, obligated to resolve power struggles. Thailand has had more than 20 prime ministers since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej assumed the throne. The economy has proved resilient, bouncing back from the Asian currency crisis in 1997, the devastating tsunami in 2004 and crippling floods in 2011. About two-thirds of Thailand’s 67 million people live in rural areas and more than 90 percent are Buddhist.
Bangkok’s urban middle class and royalist elite have resisted ceding control after Thaksin drew rural voters to the polls, swelling turnout to more than 75 percent in the last two elections. The protesters reject the idea that they’re thwarting democracy, saying the damaged political system can only produce a credible government after it’s swept clean of Thaksin’s influence. His supporters, enraged by the way their repeated victories have been overturned, have joined the cycle of stalemates and sporadic violence. A gradual accommodation might involve more power-sharing with regional governments, though that could take a generation or more. The worst outcome could be a breakup of the country or even a civil war. While the 86-year-old king, whose portrait hangs in most homes and shops, has intervened in the past to calm his subjects, he’s seen as too ill to do so now.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Markets article from October 2013 on Thailand’s rural boom.
- Paul Handley’s biography of Bhumibol Adulyadej, “The King Never Smiles.”
- New Mandala website, a forum for academic debates about Southeast Asia hosted by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
- World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor from December 2012.