Coup Talk and Thailand

Thailand has a long history of military coups. There are several reasons why another one may be brewing.

I recently asked a journalist friend of mine with many years of experience reporting across Southeast Asia, “Do you think it’s possible we’ll see a coup in Thailand soon?” His sardonic reply was, “A coup in Thailand? Well it’s not like that’s ever happened before.”

Last month, The Diplomat ran a piece by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick, who mused on the possibility of another political upheaval in Bangkok. Is Thailand on the verge of another coup? There are plenty of reasons why it could be.

First, Thailand is divided and segregated along class lines. According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Japan’s Kyoto University and a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore:

“The country can be divided roughly into two main groups: the poor, rural majority; and the Bangkok elite. Likewise, there are two main political parties which represent, in general terms, each interest: the former by the Pheu Thai party and its red shirt surrogates, and the latter by the Democrat Party, who too have their own group of cohorts known as the yellow shirts.”

This division has played out in various open demonstrations over the past six years. In 2008, the pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts were able to successfully shut down Bangkok’s international airport by protesting on the runways. In 2009, the Red Shirts stormed an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting in the resort town of Pattaya, resulting in delegates from other Southeast Asian nations having to be airlifted by helicopter from the roof of the hotel.

Both the Yellow Shirt and Red Shirts know that mass organizing is a strategy that works. Both sides also know that “if [they] don’t get what [they] want, the best tactic now is to take to the streets and paralyze government and business,” Kurlantzick noted at Asia Unbound.

Another contributing factor to Thailand's political fragility is the King’s age and poor health. Historically a steady presence when matters of politics devolve into fighting and conflict, the King has had very little to say about recent events, largely due to health concerns. A revered figure in Thai society, when the King does inevitably pass on, there will certainly be a vacuum in the Thai political system.

This is an unknown variable; there are myriad questions pertaining to issues of succession, legacy, and lèse majesté, a law prohibiting criticism of the King that has become politicized and which has taken on a life of its own in recent months.

When the King dies, it may cause chaos and augment an already tense and apprehensive situation.

The role of the military is yet another unknown factor. It was the Army that overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup in 2006. That sparked a series of events which led Thailand down the confrontational and sometimes violent path that the country has been on over the six years since. When Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was overwhelmingly chosen to be Thailand’s next prime minister in a democratic election in July 2011, the Army vowed to accept the election results.

However, the relationship between Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government and the military is rocky, at best. Thailand has been defined by coups since the nation became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. To date, there have been, by some estimates, as many as 20 military coups and the country’s constitution has been ripped up and redrawn several times. The military is an exceedingly powerful actor in Thai politics and always seems to be in an advantageous position to determine the fate of the country. According to Kurlantzick:

“[T]he Thai armed forces are currently beefing up their strength, working to promote closer intra-army unity, and essentially preparing for a potential conflict with the elected government should Thaksin return to the country, or should the elected government try to carve into the army’s political independence.”

And what of Thaksin, who was convicted in absentia of corruption and graft and sentenced to two years in prison following his removal from office? He has been living in exile in London and Dubai on a passport issued by Montenegro since his ouster. With his sister at the helm in Bangkok, it’s widely expected that Thaksin’s charges will be commuted, thus allowing the multibillionaire telecommunications mogul to return to Thailand.

Such a development is bound to upset the Bangkok elite and opposition Democrat Party, which recently announced it was voluntarily leaving a reconciliation panel established in the wake of the 2010 Red Shirt street protests, which were met with a violent crackdown by the government of Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. That response resulted in more than 90 deaths and millions of dollars in damage when protestors set fire to landmark buildings and government offices.

Some contend that, despite living in exile, Thaksin has been the man behind the curtain of the Yingluck administration, pulling the strings to run the country.

Others, at least initially, gave Yingluck the benefit of the doubt as she came into office, noting how she skillfully maneuvered her way to the premiership through a tough campaign season. However, she has been relatively ineffective in bringing the country’s divided electorate together, and she has failed to mollify tensions with the military. Her bungled handling of the floods that inundated Thailand last autumn, alienating her core constituency of poor, rural farmers, has left many observers wondering if her political life will be much shorter than originally anticipated.

While the rural north of the country and the citizens and businesses in Bangkok have their gripes, Thailand’s south is something quite different. The country’s three southern most provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat were formally apart of Malaysia before being annexed by the Kingdom of Siam at the turn of the 20th century. It’s an Islamic region in a country where the majority is Buddhist. And it’s a divide that has manifested itself in extreme violence and terrorism over the years. Islamists are known to engage in drive by shootings at random targets, as well as decapitating Buddhist monks collecting their alms in the morning before parading the heads through the streets as a warning to others.

Thaksin cracked down hard on the Islamists during his time in power, a decision that triggered even more violence in response, leading to a brutal cycle of death. The Army, for its part, is likely to advocate a similar military solution to the violence in the south.

Will Yingluck appease the military’s insatiable appetite for force in an internal conflict? If not, she may be looking down the same barrel her older brother did six years ago.

There are a lot of questions for Thailand, and few readily available answers. As Pavin recently told me: “the possibility for another round of violent confrontation is very real.”