Analysis: The Politics Behind the Thailand Coup Explained
May 23, 2014 2 Comments
By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org
In the early hours of Thursday, the Thai government of acting caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, which had been appointed on May 7 of this year, was dissolved. Executive rule is now in the hands of the Peace and Order-Maintaining Command (POMC), led by Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha and composed of the commanders-in-chief of the Royal Air Force, Navy and Police. The 2007 Constitution has been suspended and the leaders of all political factions have been arrested. The POMC has taken over all broadcasting facilities in the country and has warned social media hosts that they are not allowed to publish content that is “misleading” to the public, “escalates political conflict” or “opposes the mandate of the POMC”. Thai military officials continue to deny that this is a coup, but the actions of the POMC reflect textbook tactics of juntas, down to the suspension of regular broadcasts and their replacement with patriotic songs and military marches.
None of this is surprising, given Thailand’s turbulent political history. Since 1932, when the country became a constitutional monarchy, there have been nearly 30 military-led mutinies, rebellions, and armed insurrections in the country, including 18 attempted coups, 12 of them successful. The most recent coup prior to last Thursday’s was in 2006, when the armed forces toppled the legally elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of abusing his power and disrespecting the country’s monarchy. In January of this year, political forecaster Jay Ulfelder, who served for a decade as research director of the United States government’s Political Instability Task Force, predicted that Thailand was close to a military coup. He published a mathematical model analyzing the likelihood of a military coup materializing in most of the world’s countries in 2014. Notably, Thailand was the only non-African nation among the ten candidates that topped Ulfelder’s list.
Arguably, military coups have become rare outside of Africa in the 21st century. So why does Thailand remain so prone to them? The character of Thai society has for centuries remained starkly divided along economic, political and —to a lesser extent— ethnic lines. In the contemporary setting, perhaps the most prominent division is between the urban middle class and the rural population. The disparity between the two, in terms of income and cultural values, is at the heart of the current political instability in the country. For most of the past century, Thailand’s political life has been dominated by the urban middle class in capital Bangkok. The urban population is, for the most part, westernized in manners and outlook, educated and economically privileged. It is also largely secular and fiercely royalist, revering Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, as the ‘father of the nation’.
In the closing years of the 20th century, however, a new political movement emerged that challenged the power of the urban elite. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, appeared as a new force in national politics. It won the 2001 general election, which was widely seen as the most open and fair in Thai history up to that point. Brandishing a fierce populist, anti-establishment rhetoric, Thai Rak Thai was the first party in Thailand’s history to actively seek power by wooing voters, not among the country’s well-connected urban elite, but from the provinces. The party drew the vast majority of its support from the poorer segments of the population, especially from the largely neglected north of the country. These voters, who represent Thailand’s rural majority, are known as ‘red-shirts’.
Shinawatra’s government was the first in Thai’s turbulent political history to complete a four-year term. And when he stood for elections again, in 2005, he won an absolute majority, based once again on votes from the rural population. The reason Thai Rak Thai dominated the 2005 elections was that Shinawatra’s government was able to deliver for the rural poor. It created the country’s first-ever national healthcare system, funneled money to education, and implemented nationally-administered micro-lending schemes and rural development funds.
In the meantime, the well-connected urban class, known informally as the ‘yellow-shirts’ prepared to strike back. What they lacked in voter numbers they were able to compensate with legal maneuvering. Through a carefully coordinated administrative and judicial campaign, supported by the highly politicized bureaucratic and military elite in Bangkok, the ‘yellow-shirts’ were able to draw attention to several instances of abuse of power and corruption by the Shinawatra government. In 2006, the military toppled Shinawatra’s populist administration, arguing that it had abused its power and disrespected the royal family.
Shinawatra left the country in order to avoid arrest on corruption charges. But the throngs of ‘red-shirt’ voters remained steadfast. And when he nominated a successor, Samak Sundaravej, campaigning for the populist People’s Power Party, Shinawatra’s voters promptly voted him into power in the 2007 general elections. So Shinawatra effectively continued to run the country from exile. Shortly afterwards, another judicial maneuver from the ‘yellow-shirts’ prompted the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Sundaravej government guilty of electoral fraud. In a move backed by the pro-royalist military, the new government was dissolved and a ‘yellow-shirt’-linked caretaker administration was appointed in its place. Elections were held in 2011, which were, once again, won in a landslide by a ‘red-shirt’ candidate, this time Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, who campaigned for the Pheu Thai (For Thais) party. She became Thailand’s first female prime minister. Once again, however, this new ‘red-shirt’ government was declared illegal on a technicality (the alleged unconstitutional transfer of a top security officer) and dissolved by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on May 7, 2014. The most recent act of this drama was played on Thursday, when the military took over, ostensibly to protect the unity of the nation.
Few observers with any knowledge of Thai politics see the military as a neutral force that is able to preserve any sort of national unity. General Prayuth, who heads the POMC, is a hardline royalist with close connections to the ‘yellow-shirt’ movement. Moreover, the military has dissolved the constitution a dozen times in the past in order to “preserve national unity”. Many would argue that the incessant military interventions in the political life of the country are precisely the reason for the sorry state of contemporary Thai politics. What Thailand needs now is not men with guns in the streets of Bangkok, but free and fair elections coupled with steps to create truly independent state institutions, including an impartial judiciary and depoliticized armed forces. Moreover, the political imbalance between the cities and the countryside must be addressed by giving more constitutional power to the provinces.
In the meantime, however, the world community is faced with the prospect of potentially spiraling political violence in Thailand. In the political crisis of 2006, which gave rise to the previous military coup, over 100 protesters —most of them ‘red-shirt’ supporters— were killed by the military. If this is repeated, there are no assurances that provincial political forces will remain passive. Moreover, observers are keeping an eye on the situation within the military, which some say, is seeing a split between ‘red-shirt’ and ‘yellow-shirt’ supporters. So far the armed forces appear unified behind the POMC. But will this last?
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the POMC action amounted to a “military coup” and added that Washington was “reviewing” its military cooperation, financial assistance and other institutional engagements with the Thai military. As Thailand’s main military backer, the US is uniquely positioned to exercise political pressure on the Thai junta. It remains to be seen whether it will choose to do so, or whether it will opt to legitimize the coup, as it did in Egypt earlier this year.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis coordinates the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University in the United States. He is also Director of the King Institute for Security an Intelligence Studies.