“I have decided to seize power,” Thailand’s army chief said on May 22, slamming his hand on the negotiation table where he had gathered the country’s rival political factions. The army commander was simply fed up.
The evolution of a functioning democracy has been put on hold in Thailand back in 2006, when the military staged a coup against the popular but controversial prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index, which reports that post-coup leaders have been “unable to place authentic national reconciliation above partisan bickering,” has continuously ranked Thailand in the gray zone between highly defective democracy and moderate autocracy ever since. Supporters of the electoral democracy that had brought Thaksin to power were pitted against royalists who called on traditional elites to curb the influence of the exiled former prime minister.
Alongside a fight between leaders who were positioning themselves ahead of the upcoming royal succession, this was a battle between Thailand’s middle classes. An emerging middle class with ties to the provinces and which owed its rise to Thaksin’s mildly redistributive policies and increased market access clashed with members of an established Bangkok-based middle class that had gained prestige and wealth from its association with the monarchy and decades of royalist-driven capitalist development in the capital city.
Gradually all state institutions were drawn into the political conflict and became partisan players. The judiciary in particular took the side of Thaksin’s foes and played an active role in removing governments close to him from office. One-sided legal meddling in politics led to accusations of “double standards” and a loss of trust in the rule of law among Thaksin’s supporters. However, the “judicialization” of Thailand, which recently resulted in the removal of Thaksin’s sister from the post of prime minister following a ruling by the Constitutional Court, did nothing to solve the stalemate.
In this broader context the latest intervention by the army appears as just another indicator of how defective Thai democracy has become. Yet, by declaring martial law throughout the country and then staging a full-blown coup, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha not only put democracy and civil liberties on hold, he also seized the power of the king. If applied to the entire kingdom, martial law can only be promulgated by Royal Proclamation. General Prayuth’s actions therefore reveal that it is not just Thai democracy that has come under pressure. With the slow departure of the ailing King Bhumibol from the political scene, the Crown has been put on the negotiating table.
Whereas the coup-makers in 2006 had the king’s backing, the soldiers behind the most recent military intervention did not seek royal legitimation of their actions. In fact, by sidelining the caretaker government of the Thaksin-affiliated Phuea Thai party, General Prayuth might even have antagonized an important member of the royal family: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is known to be close to Thaksin. Interestingly, the prince has recently been given the command of a strategically important infantry regiment. He also holds a seat on the defense council. For that reason, it is likely that frictions within the military and between rival factions in the palace will come to the fore in the coming weeks.
If the coup results in the military’s unilateral appointment of a new prime minister who is unacceptable to the Thaksin side a further escalation is bound to occur. Yet such bleak predictions belie the potential for progressive change that lies at the heart of all crises. Rather than seeing Thailand’s troubles as a decline one might equally interpret them as a negotiation of a new social contract ahead of a sea change in the structure of the Thai state.
As King Bhumibol’s health fades, his charismatic leadership will soon no longer be a source of legitimacy for those who have prospered under his reign. The fear of losing hard-won privileges to the rural masses is a very real one for the royalist elites, sections of the military and many middle-class Bangkokians. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has a controversial past, is unlikely to gain the respect his father could take for granted. The monarchy will be unable to provide legitimacy for an unequal capitalist development that merely trickles down to rural Thais but does not have their interests at its heart. Changes in people’s aspirations and a distinct “Thai spirit of capitalism” have already prompted a gradual reorientation away from the religious values that underpinned Bhumibol’s reign. Thailand is in an unenviable position having to cope with such tectonic shifts. But such is the nature of regimes that depend on one man. Once a monarch dies, the future is up for grabs.
And so Thailand is negotiating. True, the process does not look pretty and widespread bloodshed is a real possibility, but so too is compromise, even if mediated by the military. On Wednesday and under the watch of General Prayuth, the opposing sides met for a first round of talks. Even though the coup that followed the second round yesterday must be deplored and is likely to make matters worse in the short term, it is to be hoped that Thailand recognizes eventually that, with the loss of royal legitimacy, it can only be democracy and a free and fair market economy that can provide the basis of a prosperous future.
Conservatives must acknowledge the legitimate aspirations for social mobility of the emerging middle classes and the poor in the provinces and at Bangkok’s margins. The opposite camp needs to understand the fear among the old middle class, traditional elites and other Thaksin haters of losing their political voice in a system dominated by the demands of the majority. Thaksin’s repressive tendencies were proof enough that a leader who has the backing of the bulk of the people is tempted to subvert the liberties of minorities.
If Thailand negotiates successfully, if the country avoids further bloodshed, it will soon be back on track for a positive transformation. If it fails, the consequences will be disastrous.
Serhat Ünaldi is Project Manager in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Germany and Asia program. He has recently completed a doctorate at Humboldt-University in Berlin where he worked on the Thai political crisis.