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A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability
A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Report 263 / Asia

A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability

Martial law has brought calm but not peace to Thailand’s febrile politics. The military regime’s stifling of dissent precludes a frank dialogue on the kingdom’s future and could lead to greater turmoil than that which brought about the May 2014 coup.

Executive Summary

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

Op-Ed / Asia

Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse

Originally published in Bangkok Post

The government and the rebels in the South are talking, and their words say they want to find a way to end the insurgency, but their actions suggest both sides would prefer the current dreadful stalemate to the difficult compromises that would be necessary for real peace.

The talks between government officials and Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council) or Mara Patani, the umbrella body of five separatist groups, have made little progress and the main insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), has kept aloof from the process. A pernicious stalemate prevails, with both state and militants preferring hostilities to compromise.

Unlike a mutually destructive stalemate that compels compromise, the impasse in the far South is anodyne; though dreadful, it is insufficiently painful -- for the combatants at least -- to force them to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. The Thai government and BRN both have ready explanations for their reluctance resolve the conflict through talks.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) professes to support dialogue to end the insurgency but has refused to endorse an official dialogue process with the Mara Patani. The NCPO appears to be caught between being seen, by local people and the international community, to do the right thing by talking and an abiding fear bordering on paranoia that dialogue will elevate the status of the separatists, paving the way for international intervention and eventual partition of the country.

For its part, BRN has rejected the existing process and impugned the Thai government's sincerity. It insists it will only join a dialogue process with international mediation and observers, a stipulation that stokes the regime's fears of internationalisation. But the BRN also seems to be inhibited by its own parochialism, evident in the lack of a detailed political platform and capacity to participate constructively in talks.

And without the BRN, the insurgent negotiators have a legitimacy problem. The Mara Patani was formed in 2015 specifically to negotiate with the government, but many observers doubt they can speak for a critical mass of fighters, or that they have the broad political networks within the southern provinces that would allow them to truly represent the views of ordinary people. Professed BRN members hold leading positions in the Mara Patani, but do not have the sanction of the group's leadership.

Meanwhile, with local civil society increasingly stifled, prospects for bringing popular pressure to bear for genuine dialogue are slim. On Wednesday, a network of civil society groups in the deep South organised a seminar in Pattani to commemorate the International Day of Peace. Although organisers had earlier obtained permission to hold the event, local authorities shut it down.

Under these circumstances, dialogue is stymied and violence persists. Coordinated bombings on Aug 11-12 bear the hallmarks of insurgent operations and represent a worrying escalation. These Mother's Day attacks on popular tourist areas north of the customary conflict zone in the southernmost provinces killed four people and wounded 30. Although senior officials continue to deny any connection between the bombings and the insurgency, police investigations indicate that insurgents carried out the attacks and all related arrest warrants are for Malay-Muslims.

Having crossed the threshold of operations against tourist targets, there is a real prospect the rebels will stage further attacks outside the customary conflict zone. The Mother's Day bombings indicate the militants' capacity to inflict greater damage on lives, property and the economy. This would be disastrous. They may succeed in damaging the tourism industry, but at the cost of pushing the government toward an iron-fisted response with enthusiastic support from a broader Thai public that to date has been largely indifferent to the insurgency. In turn, an enhanced security response risks fostering state abuses that fuel militant narratives of Siamese oppression, and potentially open the door to more extreme radicalisation. Should future attacks cause foreign fatalities, the BRN risks earning the international community's opprobrium, which it has so far avoided. 

The Mother's Day attacks illustrate the risks of pursuing a pro forma dialogue that leaves out the main insurgent group. The NCPO should reconsider its approach of containing the insurgency and seeking militant capitulation rather than a comprehensive political solution. The government needs to develop avenues of exchange with the BRN's leaders aimed at starting official peace talks. The NCPO should also restore rights to freedom of expression and assembly. A lasting resolution to the conflict requires sustained public participation.

The BRN should reciprocate any overtures from Bangkok and be prepared to show gestures of goodwill up to and including a ceasefire to demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in a compromise solution. The BRN should subordinate military operations to pursuit of viable political ends and observe its obligations under International Humanitarian Law, including an end to attacks on civilians.

Mara Patani can still play a constructive role, but it should be candid about the extent of its influence inside Thailand and work toward a broader dialogue that includes the BRN.

Divisions and capacity constraints pose major challenges but are a less immediate obstacle than a lack of determination to negotiate a settlement. The belligerents need to take seriously their obligation to those they claim to represent to find a peaceful resolution, based on a decentralised political order that respects local identity and aspirations while preserving the unitary state. The government needs to understand that there will be no peace without compromise, and that a degree of autonomy does not necessarily lead to national dissolution.