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Thailand’s Troubled Democracy

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Thailand is a relatively 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 eight decades as its “coup season.” In between, there has been violent political strife. The latest round featured deadly street clashes, politically tainted corruption trials and the army taking control after an election derailed by protests. More than three years on, the junta is still in charge and there’s no exact date yet for new elections. With its interventionist military and polarized population, will Thailand ever get the hang of democracy?

Thailand entered a one-year mourning period after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, then the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died Oct. 13, 2016. The 88-year-old ruler, whose portrait hangs in most homes and shops, was a symbol of stability amid the political turmoil that accompanied his seven-decade reign. (A date for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol's only son, has yet to be announced.) Since the most recent overthrow of an elected government, in May 2014, the junta has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for new elections, which are now planned for November 2018. Junta chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who also serves as prime minister, says the elections are dependent on bridging the nation’s decade-long political divide. He's withstood demands to loosen strict curbs on political campaigning and has prosecuted officials in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which he ousted in the 2014 coup. Yingluck fled the country in 2017, joining her brother Thaksin Shinawatra — who was ousted by the military in 2006 — in exile. Thaksin and his allies have won every election dating back to 2001, with his opponents taking power periodically after interventions by the military or courts. Protests began in 2013 against a bill that would have absolved Thaksin, a telecom billionaire-turned-politician, following a post-coup corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. They evolved into a wider push to upend Thaksin’s electoral dominance, underpinned by subsidies for rice farmers and cheap health care for the rural poor. His detractors — including civil servants, royalists and the Democrat party — accuse him of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and undermining the monarchy.