On May 22, General Prauyth Chan-ocha seized power in what is now Thailand’s twelfth military coup under its current monarch. While the coup was just the latest installment in Thailand’s decade-old social and political crisis, its curious timing and the severity of the junta’s subsequent actions also suggest a subterranean ratcheting up of tensions that many observers had missed. Nonetheless, the coup is doomed to be yet another failed attempt to resolve the underlying crisis through institutional tinkering, rather than what is really required: a new social contract.
The immediate backdrop to the coup was six months of street protests by “yellow-shirt” protestors opposed to the democratically elected Pheu Thai party government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The protestors paralyzed Yingluck’s administration, forced her to call early elections for February, then violently disrupted the polls to ensure that their allies in the courts ruled them invalid. The resultant caretaker government was then decimated by a politicized anti-corruption prosecution, which removed half the cabinet from office. Eventually, it seemed, the military had had enough.
But these recent struggles were just the latest episode in Thailand’s deep social conflict. The story really begins in 2001 with the election of Yingluck’s brother, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, as Thailand’s prime minister. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thaksin had rallied Thailand’s big businessmen and lower- and lower-middle-income rural and urban Thais behind his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party using a novel, populist platform of national restoration and pro-poor policies, like rural development grants and nearly-free public healthcare. Unlike every previous oligarch-led government, Thaksin actually delivered on his promises, making him wildly popular with Thailand’s lower orders, who were tired of being used as passive vote-banks by traditional elites and wanted a fairer share of Thailand’s growing prosperity. Unsurprisingly, TRT was re-elected in 2005 with a massive parliamentary majority – the first any party had achieved in Thailand’s history.
Nonetheless, Thaksin was a deeply controversial figure. Like every Thai oligarch before him, he used state power for self-aggrandizement – directing business opportunities to himself and his allies – and coercion, consolidating TRT networks and undermining his enemies through a brutal “war on drugs” and intensifying a vicious conflict in Thailand’s southern provinces.
Opposition began to coalesce around a network of disgruntled big businessmen, politicians from the Democrat Party – based largely in the South and among Bangkok’s middle classes – and military and bureaucratic elites clustered around the palace. They were not only personally threatened by Thaksin’s growing monopolization of political and business power; they also held Thailand’s lower orders in utter contempt, viewing them as stupid peasants unworthy of exercising influence over national governance.
These groups thus branded Thaksin a threat to Thai democracy but, more importantly, to Thailand’s monarchy. This had particular popular resonance because the army had deliberately sculpted the monarchy into a semi-divine institution during the long post-WWII periods of military rule, enabling them to legitimize their domination by invoking royal approval. Invoking a threat to the monarchy enabled this elite faction to mobilize middle-class Thais onto Bangkok’s streets, generating the first “yellow-shirt” protests against Thaksin in 2005. TRT’s supporters were later to rally as “red-shirts.”
Essentially, the two coalitions contesting state power in Thailand have remained largely unchanged since this point. The yellow-shirt faction holds extensive bureaucratic, legal and military power, but its leading political expression, the misnamed “Democrats”, have never won more than 25 percent of the votes at elections. Conversely, the red-shirt faction can never rely on the loyalty of the state apparatus, but enjoys considerable economic heft and persistent popular support, having won every Thai election since 2001. Since neither faction can outclass the other, a series of violent, repetitive struggles have ensued, with state power alternating between these two groups.
Thus, in 2006, Thaksin was forced to declare early elections. Since the Democrats knew they could not win, however, they boycotted the polls, resulting in them being annulled by the anti-Thaksin constitutional court. Further yellow-shirt protests paralyzed Bangkok and, before fresh elections could be held, the military seized power. The military regime then purged the political system and sought to rig Thailand’s constitution to prevent the re-election of a red-shirt party. Despite this, TRT’s successor, the People’s Power Party, was elected as soon as democracy was restored in 2007. Anti-Thaksin forces then tried to oust the PPP using petty and politicized lawsuits, resulting in the PPP’s forcible dissolution. The military even tempted PPP’s coalition partner to switch sides, resulting in a short-lived Democrat-led government from 2008-2011. But now red-shirts flooded into Bangkok’s streets, again paralyzing the capital. They were cleared out in a bloody crackdown in April 2010, during which 92 people were killed. Yet, in 2011, PPP’s successor, Pheu Thai, was yet again re-elected under Yingluck. She initially played a canny hand, betraying red-shirts imprisoned for lèse-majesté (insulting the king) to court military support and burnish her royalist credentials. But her proposed 2013 Amnesty Bill, which would have exonerated those behind the 2010 massacres as well as her brother, stirred massive popular opposition on both sides, revitalizing the yellow-shirt protests and politicized lawsuits – leading us to the present conjuncture.
Initially, the military seemed remarkably restrained. Despite endless yellow-shirt appeals and numerous coup rumors, General Prayuth seemed reluctant to intervene. I speculated that, in addition to Yingluck’s courting of top generals, the army had learned its lesson in 2006, and knew it could not resolve this massive socio-political deadlock. Even as street violence mounted – with yellow-shirts apparently staging attacks on their own protests to incite a coup – the army remained in its barracks, allowing the police to clear protest sites. Despite a few low-level incidents, by May, the dwindling yellow-shirts had been confined to Lumpini Park. Notwithstanding the electoral boycotts and renewed attempts at a judicial coup, the government seemed to be riding out the pressure.
This makes the coup’s timing very curious: Prayuth’s claim that it was necessary to arrest rising societal violence does not immediately appear credible. It has led some to argue this was a new kind of coup, one that perhaps indicates a dangerous, subterranean escalation of tensions.
The most credible explanations of the coup’s timing relate to fears of inter-military splits. Analysis has made clear that the junta is dominated by the so-called “Eastern Tigers” or Queens Guard faction of the army. Reports have circulated of a stormy confrontation between leading Eastern Tigers at the Army Club, with General Prawit Wongsuwan – a shadowy backer of the 2013-14 protests – essentially forcing Prayuth to seize power. Prawit’s subsequent installation as chair of the junta’s “advisory board” lends credence to these claims. It is possible that the Eastern Tigers were alarmed by Yingluck’s courting of other military factions, or by the Crown Prince’s recent acquisition of command over several rival regiments.
Another disturbing and possibly related rumor concerns the discovery of attempts to smuggle arms into Thailand, possibly to bolster pro-government military or paramilitary elements. Again, this is given some credence by subsequent arrests of 21 individuals and the seizure of arms caches. These rumors gave rise to some alarmist speculation about a possible civil war. However, the red-shirts lack the organization, materiel or inclination to pursue this option, while the military does not seem about to split either.
A further, non-exclusive possibility was that the king was close to death and the military wished to control the succession. King Bhumibol – who, despite his reputation as a peace-maker has clearly been unable to uphold civil peace or democracy over the last decade – has been gravely ill for three years. Although open discussion of the succession is banned in Thailand, because of the throne’s strategic utility (and the crown’s $37 billion asset portfolio), the question of who will succeed Bhumibol has significantly underpinned the red/yellow struggle. Bhumibol’s son, Vajiralongkorn, is widely reviled for his playboy lifestyle, generating fears among traditional elites that, post-Bhumibol, the monarchy will lose its mystical capacity to legitimize their power grabs. They have favored his more popular sister, Sirindhorn, although it is her younger sister and mother who have overtly supported the yellow-shirts. Conversely, Thaksin has apparently courted Vajiralongkorn, paying off his gambling debts and lavishing him with gifts. The Crown Prince had recently strengthened his hand through new military appointments, technically elevating him to command seven army regiments – possibly alarming some Eastern Tigers.
Bhumibol has not appeared in public for many months; when last he did, he appeared physically incapacitated. Importantly, Prayuth has not sought a televised audience with the king to obtain a rubber-stamp for his coup, as per usual practice; he has merely received a letter, and been photographed bowing to the king’s picture. Meanwhile, Vajiralongkorn had flown to Britain on May 18 – suggesting either that he foresaw the coup, or that his departure created the opening the military needed to move. This again reinforces the view that the stakes behind this coup had been dramatically raised.
The junta’s actions after seizing power also suggest this coup differs from that in 2006. Despite brave anti-coup protests, the regime has clamped down hard, curtailing media freedom, censoring social media, suspending freedoms of speech and assembly, and rounding up elected politicians, activists, journalists and academics, releasing them only when they promise to refrain from “political agitation.” The junta has apparently settled in for the long haul, envisaging extensive “national reform” – a purge of red-shirts and sympathizers, and a massive restructuring of Thailand’s “political, social and economic institutions” – before restoring democracy. This may appear a massive victory for the yellow-shirts, who had called for reform before elections and demanded the destruction of the Thaksin regime.
Nonetheless, the current military intervention is just as doomed to fail as that in 2006. The reason is that social conflict is fundamental: it cannot be engineered out of existence through any amount of institutional tinkering. A near-decade of electoral boycotts, constitutional gerrymandering, judicial coups and even military coups have changed neither the existence nor the basic nature of the social forces underpinning Thailand’s political crisis. They have not altered the fundamental reality: that, whatever Thaksin’s hateful attributes, the idea he represents – that poorer Thais should finally get their just share of political power and economic resources – stubbornly refuses to die. Thailand’s lower orders steadfastly decline to be written out of Thai history. Indeed, their unprecedented experience of political mobilization has only reinforced their sense of injustice and commitment to improve their lot.
Historically, the only way to arrest such a tide of rising expectations has been massive, sustained violence that defeats and demobilizes agitated social forces and forces them into new, depoliticized institutions – as celebrated in Samuel Huntington’s famous 1968 book, Political Order in Changing Societies. We have seen this before in Southeast Asia: notoriously, in Indonesia when General Suharto slaughtered perhaps a million “communists” in Indonesia; and in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, when massacres and counter-insurgency warfare beat back the rising Thai left.
But the context today is entirely different. Unlike during the Cold War, the West will not applaud and support such brutality; moreover, the Thai military lacks the stomach for it. Hence its resort to institutional tinkering.
The Thaksinistas are equally incapable of simply quashing their enemies. They have consistently failed to impose their will upon the state apparatus, and now they apparently lack the ability to even overturn the coup, let alone prosecute a civil war. The situation thus remains identical to 2005: neither side is strong enough to defeat the other using the means available.
The only solution to Thailand’s long-running socio-political crisis is therefore a new accommodation among key social forces: a new social contract that more equitably distributes political and economic power. This has been obvious to most observers for many years, but the reluctance of Thailand’s traditional elites to cede anything of significance to the lower orders or the despised Thaksin faction has persistently blocked any progress. At times, yellow-shirt leaders have flirted with pro-poor policies to buy off Thaksin’s supporters – a strategy again being attempted now, with the army dispensing rice subsidies to farmers, a policy for which Yingluck was flayed by her enemies. And we have seen red-shirt politicians, notably Yingluck, try to establish a modus vivendi with key rivals. But these efforts have been half-hearted and wholly insufficient. The traditional elite’s resort to a coup, which merely plunges Thailand into a time-warp, revolving back to 2006, suggests they remain unwilling to make any concessions. Until they do, Thailand cannot experience social or political peace.