Thailand’s Troubled Democracy
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 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. Two years on, the junta is still in charge and there’s no 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, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died Oct. 13. The 88-year-old ruler, whose portrait hangs in most homes and shops, was a symbol of unity and stability amid the political turmoil. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol's only son, succeeded him. The most recent coup, in May 2014, followed months of street demonstrations against the elected government. The junta has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for new elections, with the latest timeline calling for polls in late 2017. Military leader-turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha says the elections won't be delayed by the king's death and are dependent on bridging the nation’s decade-long political divide. Prayuth became leader following the 2014 coup that deposed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile. Thaksin and his allies have won the past five elections 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 billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, following a corruption conviction. They evolved into a wider push to upend Thaksin’s electoral dominance, which is based, his detractors say, on vote-buying and favors for the rural poor such as subsidies for rice farmers. His opponents include civil servants, middle-aged royalists and the Democrat party, which led a government during the previous deadly uprising in 2010.
Thailand has had a dozen coups since the country’s seven-century rule of kings ended with a bloodless 1932 putsch 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. Thailand has had more than 20 prime ministers since 1946, when Bhumibol 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. They 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. The military’s critics say it has persecuted political opponents and shaped the constitution to maintain its influence and keep Thaksin and his supporters from wielding power effectively. They say the junta’s goal of political unity is unrealistic and what’s needed is a robust political framework that allows politicians to fight it out without the risk of military meddling.
The Reference Shelf
- King Bhumibol’s obituary.
- A Time magazine explainer on Thailand's latest constitution.
- 2014 profiles of Prayuth Chan-Ocha by the BBC and the Independent.
- 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.
- The World Bank’s Thailand page.
First published Jan. 30, 2014
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