A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability
Asia Report N°263
3 Dec 2014
On 22 May, for the twelfth time in Thailand’s history, the army seized power after months of political turbulence. This is not simply more of the same. The past decade has seen an intensifying cycle of election, protest and government downfall, whether at the hands of the courts or military, revealing deepening societal cleavages and elite rivalries, highlighting competing notions of legitimate authority. A looming royal succession, prohibited by law from being openly discussed, adds to the urgency. A failure to fix this dysfunction risks greater turmoil. The military’s apparent prescription – gelding elected leaders in favour of unelected institutions – is more likely to bring conflict than cohesion, given a recent history of a newly empowered electorate. For the army, buyer’s remorse is not an option, nor is open-ended autocracy; rather its legacy, and Thailand’s stability, depend on its success in forging a path – thus far elusive – both respectful of majoritarian politics and in which all Thais can see their concerns acknowledged.
The coup’s stage was set by yet another round of a power struggle between forces allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents in the traditional establishment and urban middle class. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who won office in 2011, faced large anti-government protests from November 2013 following an ill-judged bid by her party to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed for the return to Thailand of her brother, in self-exile since 2008. The protesters, sensing the moment, wanted to bring down the government, citing “parliamentary dictatorship”, runaway populism and alleged corruption. Yingluck called a general election, but it was boycotted by the main opposition, subject to disruption and invalidated by the Constitutional Court. In May, the same court forced Yingluck from office for an administrative violation. With the caretaker government hobbled but refusing to resign, the army declared martial law and seized power.
Yingluck’s ouster and the coup echo earlier rounds of turmoil. Thaksin-affiliated parties have won every general election since 2001, usually in the face of staunch establishment resistance, and none but his first government has been permitted to see out their term. Thaksin showed an authoritarian bent, yet his parties win each time there is a return to the polls. Under these circumstances, the ouster of Yingluck’s government seemed to many – both those for and against it – as almost inevitable. This time, the more active role of the military in government, the intensifying political divide and the impending royal succession create a tightening torque of tension that might prove difficult to roll back.
In seizing power so soon after its last intervention in 2006, and following its involvement in violently quelling 2010 street protests, the military, under General Prayuth Chan-ocha, appears determined to learn from what it sees to have been its past errors. Thus, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has moved forcefully to repress dissent and looks unlikely to relinquish power any time soon, with talk of October 2015 elections now replaced with vaguer commitments. Further, the interim charter gives absolute power to the NCPO, including amnestying its members for past and future actions. It provides no role for elected representatives or means for popular political participation. The parameters it sets out for the next constitution suggest elected authority will be heavily circumscribed, previous efforts to tamp down the influence of Thaksin and his proxies having failed.
It is far from certain that the electorate will quietly accept such a diminished status. Voters, increasingly accustomed to choosing their governments, are also ever more riven across geographical, to some extent class, and quasi-ideological lines. These interlocking and fundamental challenges concern the relationship between Bangkok and its peripheries; persistent income inequality; and the reality that the country’s leaders – caught in a clash between those for whom the popular ballot is paramount and those for whom majoritarianism masks its own form of tyranny – find dogmatism easier to come by than statesmanship.
After months of political turmoil, the economy is sluggish. In spite of its proclaimed anti-populism, the military has found no alternative to extensive public spending. The decade-old separatist insurgency in the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces grinds on. The NCPO insists it will pursue dialogue with militant leaders, but its refusal to countenance any form of special administration for the region calls into question the rationale for talks.
Absent a change of course, the NCPO’s suspension of civil liberties, media censorship and measures to remove the power of elected officials appear to foreclose any possibility of achieving its stated aim of establishing democracy. Thailand’s biggest need is for a national dialogue to forge consensus on its future political direction; to settle on a shared notion of democracy; and to ensure that the majoritarian will can be respected in the form of a fully empowered executive and legislature, while protecting the interests of all.
Stronger institutions for representation and accountability are the best hope for more responsive and resilient government. Without them, individuals and groups are cast back upon opaque patron-client relations to secure their interests. The independent agencies must be impartial and the independence of the judiciary upheld. There needs to be consideration as to whether greater decentralisation could accommodate regional differences and reduce the stakes of controlling national government. Until state power answers to elected authority, stability and democracy will be elusive. This requires, in part, that elected authorities observe limits on power that ensure transparency and protect the rights of political minorities; addressing corruption, a significant challenge, will require concerted measures within that democratic framework.
Like the 1991 and 2006 coups, that of 2014 did not provoke an immediate violent backlash. Many welcomed the army’s intervention to restore order, stamp out corruption and “move the country forward”. But both earlier coups eventually resulted in deadly confrontations between troops and protesters. The current build-up of pressures suggests that past may prove to be prologue.
Brussels/Bangkok, 3 December 2014