Thailand’s military-led reconciliation talks began on February 14, 2017 and will last for three months. The aim of the talks is to heal the political divide that has plagued Thailand for more than a decade. But well-intentioned as the talks may seem, the military elites have again wrongly perceived the country’s crisis as an elite competition played at the top of a hierarchical society. Indeed, along with the promulgation of the new constitution on April 6, 2017, the talks indicate that the military elites are trying to seek a negotiated deal with opposing politicians while further entrenching their political control. These political moves are symptomatic of an outmoded assumption. Competition between different elites has traditionally been viewed as the reason behind the crisis in Thailand.
One should refer back to Thai history to understand how developments in society gave rise to political factions with competing interests. The military elites’ interest was to maintain their overall authoritarian control over Thai society. But as Thailand continued to develop and modernize, there were costs and risks involved with sustained levels of repression. By allowing some form of democracy, however, the military elites began to see the rise of politicians as a serious competitor to their interests.
The significance of this competition can be traced back to the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s. At the time, there was a form of partial democracy, where the military elites maintained control over major cabinet portfolios but allowed the co-existence of politicians. As the number of politicians grew, they also grew in influence in Thai society. To keep their interests intact, the military elites tried to co-opt the politicians into their inner circle.
Nevertheless, the strategy of co-option did not always work according to what was initially intended, especially when elected politicians began to mount a serious challenge to the system. Such prominent politicians were Chatichai Choonhavan and Thaksin Shinawatra, with the latter being more successful.
As a response, the military elites chose the option they knew best, a military coup. Even so, it was clear that the 2006 coup had failed to purge the influence of the Shinawatra clan. Close associates of Thaksin, as well as his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, continued to win elections in 2007 and 2011 respectively. The latest coup in 2014 against Yingluck was thus seen as an attempt to ensure a final end to these challenges.
This perception of elite competition closes the eyes of the military elites to the fundamental ideological crisis that Thailand is undergoing. This ideological crisis stems from the way transformations in society are increasingly at odds with Thailand’s official ideology, which forms the basis for the military elites’ authoritarian control.
Electoral politics became more important when Thaksin took power in 2001. Thaksin was the first Thai politician who took electoral promises seriously, as he recognized the changes in society and took advantage of them. In the eyes of the rural populace, an attack on Thaksin was therefore seen as an attack on electoral democracy rather than just the person.
A demand for electoral democracy by the rural populace poses a significant threat to the ideological basis upon which the military elites can exist in the political realm. It essentially rejects the role of the King and his “few good men” in providing for the nation. The demand for electoral democracy was not new; it dates back at least to the student movement in the mid-1970s. However, a similar demand by the rural populace is more threatening as they constitute a majority of the Thai population.
Another important thing to note is that this ideological crisis can get more severe over time, with the justification for the military’s authoritarian control at stake. The military’s authority rests on the justification that it is the “protector of the monarchy.” The success of this justification has so far depended heavily on the charisma and popularity of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. However, finding a like-for-like replacement for King Bhumibol after his passing was never realistic. In other words, the way in which King Bhumibol’s personality cult was formed set the military on the course of failure right from the start.
Reconciliation and New Constitution
The latest reconciliation talks and the promulgation of the draft constitution indicate that the military elites have failed to recognize the underlying ideological crisis confronting Thailand. Specifically, the attempt to strike a negotiated deal with politicians from the opposite end while entrenching their control suggests military leaders do not understand that their justification for authoritarian control has reached an expiration date. Such a lack of understanding can only make Thai society more unstable.
The military elites need to eventually recognize that the passing of King Bhumibol represents the coming of a new era. Given how Thai society has transformed, there needs to be a new social contract with the Thai polity — one in which there are values and beliefs that everyone can agree upon. Only in doing so can there be long-lasting stability in Thailand.
Eugene Mark is a Senior Analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He has a deep interest in Thailand’s political and security affairs.