Can Thailand Break Its Coup Addiction?

Anti-government protesters using a bulldozer to remove concrete barriers outside Bangkok police headquarters on Dec. 3 Photograph by Vincent Thian/AP Photo

Over the past week, Thailand’s political unrest has descended into serious, chaotic violence. On Monday and Tuesday, protesters entered the grounds of both police headquarters and Government House, having already occupied other ministries. Last weekend at least three people were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters, pro-government supporters, police, and unidentified agitators. Dozens more were wounded, and parts of Bangkok near government ministries now look more like Syria-esque war zones than the streets of one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Southeast Asia.

As protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban declares that there will be no surrender, demanding the prime minister step down and hand over power to an unelected “people’s council” of leaders, the chance of an extra-constitutional intervention— a military coup or an intervention by the royal palace—grows higher and higher. Already, the demonstrators have been able to take extraordinary steps that would have been unthinkable in most parliamentary democracies: occupying ministries, issuing deadlines to the government, taking over media outlets.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has responded weakly, allowing the demonstrators to just march into ministries, because government leaders know that if they take tough measures and many people are killed or wounded, the army—no fan of Yingluck or her populist party—would likely intervene. Indeed, Suthep already has declared that the armed forces are on the side of the protesters, who are primarily urban and middle class rather than the working class, rural supporters of Yingluck.

Thailand, in fact, is addicted to coups and other types of extra-constitutional interventions, which have badly undermined the country’s democracy. In most countries as wealthy as Thailand, coups have all but vanished since the end of the Cold War. Yet Thailand has witnessed 18 coups in the past seven decades, including one in 2006 against Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as other types of interventions. In 2008 and 2009, for example, after similar destructive protests by demonstrators paralyzed parts of Bangkok, leading pro-royalist elite politicians allegedly brokered backroom deals that led to the fall of a pro-Thaksin government and the installation of the opposition Democrat Party.

Why is Thailand so addicted to coups and other types of interventions? As Australian National University professor Nicholas Farrelly notes, decades of relying on coups as the default option to restore stability creates a kind of “coup culture,” in which the repeated use of coups leads elites to think they are the only way out of political stalemates. In other words, coups breed more coups.

Still, in some ways this argument is a tautology. Other countries also had such coup cultures—think of Turkey—and eventually broke the cycle to the point where coups became unacceptable. Thailand has not done so. That’s in part because, compared to nearly every army in the world, Thailand’s military is particularly bloated with senior officers who are not needed for defense and war-fighting. Despite having no obvious external enemies, Thailand has over 1,700 generals and admirals—proportionally a vastly higher percentage than in the U.S. military. Most of Thailand’s senior officers have no real jobs. Instead, they have come to believe they can gain prestige, work, and money only by intervening in politics.

Thailand remains neither an absolute monarchy, like states in the Persian Gulf, nor a truly constitutional monarchy such as the Netherlands, Britain, or Japan. Although Thailand is technically a constitutional monarchy, the king, who is the longest-reigning monarch in the world, has over the decades amassed enormous personal powers to himself and his group of allies, often called the “network monarchy.” On some occasions, including in 1973 and 1992, the king intervened directly in politics to end street protests and arbitrate major disputes. In so doing, he may have helped Thailand in the short term while also weakening the power of formal institutions designed to handle disputes. Royal interventions may have added to the notion that Thailand’s political divides can only be handled informally, by a few good men from the palace or army.

Can the country, the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia and a critical hub for many multinationals, ever break its extra-constitutional habits? It’s possible: After a coup in 1992, Thailand seemed to be on the road to solid democracy and it could get back on track. Doing so is not impossible, as many Thai elites (and some Western analysts) insist, but it will require several groups of senior Thais to make compromises.

For one, the Democrat Party, whose leaders, such as Suthep, repeatedly have abandoned electoral politics for violent street demonstrators designed to set the stage for coups, will have to accept contesting—and trying to win—elections. Although these protests serve the opposition in the short-term, repeatedly removing pro-Shinawatra parties weakens Thailand in the long term and does nothing to make the Democrat Party more competitive once voting returns. The Democrat Party has not won a national election since the early 1990s and will need to expand its appeal to reach poorer, rural Thais if it is ever to win again.

The military and the palace also will need to change to break Thailand’s coup cycle. Changes in Thailand’s royal palace probably are coming. The revered king will be 86 years old this week and is in poor health; his successor will not enjoy the moral authority and the power built up through decades of politicking. After the king passes away, Thailand may well develop into a truly constitutional monarchy, which would force the country to strengthen democratic institutions designed to mediate disputes, such as the courts.

Changing the military will be harder. But if other countries in the region can change—including Myanmar and Indonesia, where the army was even more involved in politics—than Thailand can, too. As in Indonesia, civilian Thai governments could slowly downsize the military while guaranteeing pensions for soldiers and appointing senior officers to boards of state companies and other sinecures so as to ensure that top brass do not go wanting.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yingluck will need to swallow her pride and call a new election as soon as possible. A new poll would both strengthen the democratic system and, potentially, shore up her legitimacy. Wounded pride would be a small price to pay to avoid further real wounds on the streets of Bangkok.

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