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In a country where coups are as frequent as U.S. elections, is the military finally showing restraint? A "red shirt" uprising planned for January could be the next test.
An elephant electioneers in the aftermath of Thailand's last coup. With deep rifts in Thai society, can the military finally restrain itself? (Photo by Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters.)
BANGKOK – In the land of smiles, even military takeovers can turn jubilant.
During the most recent coup in 2006, bystanders cheered as soldiers marched past with marigold ribbons fastened to their assault rifles.
In Thailand, such gleeful tolerance for armed interference in the otherwise democratic government is far from unusual.
Coups d’état here are nearly as common as presidential elections in the U.S. The military averages one every four or five years. It has launched 18 coups since 1932, when army officers coerced the royal family to accept a democracy with the monarch as head of state.
More than a few of the 18 turned violent. Military infighting in 1951 led to the prime minister’s abduction on a naval vessel, which was bombed by the nation’s own air force. A student uprising in 1976 sparked an army-led campus massacre, killing hundreds, and a subsequent military takeover. And in the aftermath of a 1991 coup, soldiers shot protesters dead in broad daylight.
On the other hand, many coups have been described as silken, silent or bloodless. They are so routine in Thailand that they seem like a legitimate part of the political process. Many Thais believe in the “good coup” — when politicking gets too foul, they welcome a people-friendly putsch to wipe the board clean.
“We’ve made coups practical, useful, even user-friendly. Unfortunately, we’ve made it an art form,” Supavud Saicheua, an economist with Phatra Securities, one of Thailand’s largest investment firms.
But that might be changing.
These days, with warring political movements destabilizing Thailand — and an anti-establishment faction hoping to topple the government in 2010 — conditions seem ripe for a good old-fashioned coup d’état.
For now, analysts say, the armed forces are showing restraint. Military power circles seem to recognize that another takeover would further destabilize an already-fractured Thailand. More optimistic experts hope the military may finally be maturing beyond coups altogether.
Though army strongmen are no longer en vogue in Asia, Thailand’s military still commands great political power. No party can rule for long without their support. Politicians clench the military’s allegiance by keeping budgets flush for a top-heavy, 300,000-person bureaucracy, and for high-end hardware — such as Swedish fighter jets, Ukrainian armed personnel carriers and Russian helicopters, all ordered amid the current financial crisis.
The last Thai prime minister who attacked military budgets, the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was forced out in the 2006 coup. The military insisted Thaksin was incurably corrupt, as did a yellow-clad street movement agitating for the takeover.
But Thaksin’s ouster enraged his largely rural base and gave rise to his own “red shirts” street movement, dedicated to restoring his premiership and confronting powerful aristocrats.
The color-coded protest factions have since taken turns wreaking havoc: seizing airports, occupying government buildings and sending prime ministers fleeing from a crashed world leaders’ summit. The next confrontation is slated for January, when the “red shirts” plan to descend on Bangkok and, again, try to bring down the government.
Break it, you own it
But a new coup would drop the challenge of mending this social divide right in the military’s lap, a prospect that doesn’t appeal to the generals, according to Pitch Pongsawat, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. They may be willing to hit the political reset button, he said, but they’re not interested in governing this mess.
“This is a situation of ideological war,” Pitch said. “The military can’t help solve this problem. They have to wait until the country tears itself apart and comes back together.”
Many blame the 2006 coup for helping crack open this urban-rural, elite-poor social divide.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, has said the coup was effectively “botched.” It didn’t end Thaksin’s support. It didn’t really restore order. And it strained relations with Western democracies, particularly America, which briefly halted military aid, in accordance with U.S. law.
It was the wrong cure for Thailand’s ills. And it seemed to show the generals that, in a democracy, widespread public support is crucial to a successful coup.
“Generals tell me all the time, they have a disdain for politicians,” Thitinan said. “‘They're all corrupt,’ they say. Yes, they're corrupt. But it's not [the military’s] job to take away their jobs.”
Don’t mess with might
Still, becoming coup shy doesn’t mean the military is loosening its political grip.
As coup rumors churned in 2008, the head of each military branch appeared on live TV to urge the prime minister, Thaksin-ally Somchai Wongsawat, to resign. When that didn’t work, an armed mob of “yellow shirt” protesters seized both Bangkok airports — with almost zero resistance from the armed forces. “It was a non-action action,” Pitch said.
The pressure built until courts charged the Thaksin-linked government with fraud. Power was ceded to a coalition government, headed by Thailand’s Democrats party and Prime Minister Abhisit “Mark” Vejjajiva. Military figures are believed to have helped broker the new government.
Regardless of the current ruling party’s military support, even Abhisit’s government is not immune to coup rumors. In August, Thai newspapers buzzed with gossip that the armed forces would make a move during the prime minister’s visit to a United Nations summit in New York.
That never happened. But the military did extract roughly $300 million from the government. The added capital is slated to buy submarine-attacking Seahawk helicopters, coastal patrol vessels and other vehicles. One Thai headline announced, “While Mark is Away, the Mice Play,” and commentators noted the government’s disinclination to confront the armed forces.
All this lurching back and forth — from takeovers to military restraint and back again — is a “100 years crisis,” according to Thitinan.
Thitinan speculated that it may take an entire century from the 1932 coup that transformed Thailand from a traditional kingdom to a constitutional monarchy before the country evolves into a democracy free from the military’s grip.
Thailand, he points out, has often prospered under decades of military intervention. Its mix of authoritarianism and democracy has proved a better alternative to the vicious strain of communism that swept Southeast Asia up into the 1980s. “I’m very happy Thailand never became communist,” Thitinan said. “But we paid a price for it.”
Thailand’s political maturity will likely be tested again when the government holds future elections, which are currently unscheduled. The “red shirts” faction insists the ruling Democrats party would lose at the polls. Tens of thousands of protesters, they say, will assemble in January to calls for a vote.
Surveys seem to support claims that a Thaksin-allied political party — called “Puea Thai” or “For Thais” — could win the popular vote. The party’s chairman, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, is an influential retired army general.
Many believe the military would refuse to allow the once-ousted Thaksin to regain power — even through an elected proxy party headed by a former general. Perhaps, Pitch said, cautioning that “the military will tolerate any regime as long as they’re given money.”
Like most political scientists, he’s unwilling to guess when the military will finally give up coups forever. “Coup d’état is part of the Thai political culture,” Pitch said. “It could happen tomorrow and people will just adapt.”