Thailand’s latest coup is no surprise; the Southeast Asian country has experienced twelve of them since the establishment of the modern state in 1932. What makes Thai coups so interesting, however, is not the relative lack of bloodshed that has accompanied the most recent spate, but the way in which those coups are promoted as preserving Thai “democracy”—and serve to maintain the most undemocratic of systems, the monarchy. The stability of Thailand matters in Southeast Asia—and to the interests of China and the US. Should Thailand dissolve into a civil war—and should the revered King Bhumibol die in the near future—the US’s “pivot to Asia” will take on a much different tone as it deals with the breakdown of one of its longstanding allies.
Thai democracy presents an interesting paradox: a “democratic” state with a “vibrant” civil society that presents very little challenge to a state controlled and maintained by royal myths, repressive laws, brutal prison systems, carefully crafted social norms and compliant populations. Opposition does exist, as Thailand’s history of coups and protest reveals, but opposition is always couched in terms of preserving or protecting the sanctity of Thai identity and more often represents clashes between warring elites. At the same time, civil society, rather than being a site of true pluralism, has been limited to playing a social service role, far from the ideal of democracy. While the factions involved in Thailand’s recent political upheavals could be construed as civil society in motion, in fact, Thailand’s civil society has been stunted by the government’s longstanding policy of paternalism, monarchism and state control. When the situation comes to a boil, then, it will be a war of elites, with the rest stuck in the middle—which will also quickly dissolve.
What has been holding this middle together has been King Bhumibol. Technically a figurehead, King Bhumibol is granted much reverence by his people, and there is a very real assertion of political power by the monarchy through a variety of mechanisms—that Bhumibol recently expressed his support for the military leaders of the coup reveals the extent to which his support matters—and the superficiality of Thai democracy.
Coups have become a sort of natural rebalancing of elite interests in Thailand, and “democracy” a thin shadow puppet show. Recent history in Thailand is a mixture of tensions between economic development, foreign investment, and parochial interests.
The current coup began with anti-government protest leaders demanding that Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, step down from her post, dissolve her government and hand power to a “people’s government”; demands backed by a military eyeing its own claims to power. The protests once again centered around the figure of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra (brother of Yingluck) and his possible return to Thailand after fleeing charges of corruption in his own government in 2006. The struggle for power, however it may look like a popular uprising, represents a continuing struggle between monarchists (and those who benefit from the monarchical grace), and elites vying for power.
During the 1980s, Western neo-liberalist economic strategies prevailed, yet this did not result in the democratic consolidation or development that were associated neo-liberalism in the post-Soviet wave of democratization and development. Until the economic successes of Thailand in the 1980s, business and businesspeople continued to be viewed as emblematic of foreign intrusion, and the Thai elite worked to limit their influence; given the profusion of ethnic Chinese in the business world, the discrimination they faced was predictable.
As Thailand went through its economic transformation from a rural based economy to one of the “Asian Tigers” of the late 80s and early 90s, urbanization increased and rural areas became more marginalized. Corporate and business interests began to dominate policy making, yet during this time there were also increasing calls for “transparency” and “accountability” in governance; after PM Prem stepped down in 1988, it seemed as though democracy might take hold with the democratically appointed PM Chatichai Choonhaven. Chatichai’s government was a disappointment, as big business and graft dominated his administration. To bring about good governance and to “clean up the mess” created by the administration, the military once again staged a coup in 1991. Large scale demonstrations against the military a year later triggered another bloody response, leading the King to intervene once more and appoint the PM, Anand Panyarachun.
The zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era promoted good governance, particularly the brand advocated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US State Department, who based good governance not only on transparency and accountability, but upon neo-liberal market reforms. Anand was adept at the use of this language—and he was politically savvy enough to realize that the Thai people were hungry for more transparency.
Accountability, however, did not appear to factor into the equation. The economic crisis of 1997 would precipitate two things: more vocal demands calls for both transparency and accountability, and a new constitution, which would be more inclusive and democratic. The monarchy and the business elite (which was perceived to have caused the crash), however, had deeply entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo of the small role for civil society and democratization in Thai politics. This would also mean that little room would be left for grassroots development by non-state or non-business actors.
The increasing influence of the business elite during the 1980s and early 1990s might have been curtailed by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, but the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra—a telecommunications mogul—reveals the extent to which the traditional and business elite had become intertwined. Thaksin’s powerful position in the business community was supplemented by enormous political support within Thailand’s northern and northeastern rural areas—people who had long felt distant from and disenfranchised by Thailand’s elite in Bangkok. Thaksin’s populism had important consequences for the expansion of social programs and services, often supplanting fledging efforts within civil society. Despite the power of the business elite (and Thaksin’s considerable influence in the Northern regions), the King continued to exert enormous influence on politics through what Duncan McCargo (2005) refers to as “network monarchy.”
Thaksin was ousted in 2006 and fled the country, but his influence as well as the effects of the network monarchy are felt everywhere in Thailand, not the least of which was the election of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as Thailand’s first female prime minister in 2011. The 2010 “red-shirt riots” in Bangkok revealed the deep-seated anger against the monarchist elites in Thailand, who had undermined the 1997 constitution, re-consolidated their power and sought to defang any populist power in the north.
Yingluck’s election, however, did not indicate a return to populism so much as it reveals the extent to which Thaksin’s power was, ironically, intricately tied to the network monarchy: the Crown Prince’s business relationships with Thaksin have long been suspect. The future of the monarchy’s role in Thai politics sits on 61-year-old Prince Vajiralongkorn’s shoulders, but his ability to maintain the kind of reverence enjoyed by his father is negligible, given the series of scandals that have followed him over the years. Indeed, as his father watches the coup from his Bangkok hospital suite, Vajiralongkorn has left the country for a luxury hotel in Hampshire, England.
Thailand’s position as a regional power must be considered in light of the monarchy’s influence, an influence that undermines a civil society that could serve as the basis of a strong democracy, a democracy that could serve as a democratic cornerstone in the region. Indonesia’s democracy, now in its third presidential cycle, appear far more stable, and may well supplant Thailand as the US’s key ally in Southeast Asia; Indonesia is also emerging as the future leader of ASEAN, further undermining Thailand’s influence. Long term political instability in Thailand is dangerous for both China and Malaysia, as past instabilities have led to movements of stateless peoples in the north, persecutions of non-Thais (particularly ethnic Chinese), and the current instability may only encourage further Muslim insurgency in the fractious South.
The coups in Thailand have become something of a recurring joke in the region (“what’s today? Tuesday? Must be a coup in Bangkok”), but the repercussions will be serious, particularly if the middle doesn’t hold and the monarchial myths that have held it together are revealed to be just that.