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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
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
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

A Royal Thai Army Signal Corps solider awaits orders. 19 May 2010. FLICKR/null0
Op-Ed / Asia

Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?

Originally published in The New York Times

On Aug. 11 and 12, coordinated bombings and arson attacks in tourist destinations in seven provinces of peninsular Thailand killed four people and injured 35. No group claimed responsibility, and senior officials of the military government almost immediately decided that the bombings were not acts of terrorism. They also dismissed any link to Malay-Muslim militants who have been waging a separatist insurgency for the past 13 years in the four southernmost provinces.

A police spokesman said, “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.”

That was an astounding statement in view of the insurgency by ethnic nationalists in the Malay-Muslim majority provinces, where violence has killed some 6,500 people since the beginning of 2004.

The prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, rushed to imply that blame should be directed at domestic political opponents loyal to two former prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who opposed a new constitution, drafted by the military, that assured continued power for Thailand’s ruling military clique. Voters approved the draft constitution on Aug. 7, amid heavy restrictions on campaigning against the charter.

Several opponents of the government, including members of the Thaksin loyalists’ Red Shirt movement have been detained, even though the bombings do not conform to the modus operandi of earlier violence associated with pro-Thaksin groups. Neither do they bear significant similarities to the bombing of a Hindu shrine in central Bangkok in August 2015 that killed 20 people.

The bombings do, however, bear the hallmarks of operations by the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, which is known as the B.R.N. and is the main group fighting for the independence of the Malay-Muslim south of the country. The attacks were coordinated over several provinces, often employing two or more improvised explosive devices timed to detonate in sequence. The devices were small and, although lethal, were not designed or deployed to cause mass casualties. Also consistent with B.R.N. operations, there was no claim of responsibility.

Thai police investigators, contradicting the government’s narratives, said the bombs were typical of those used by militants in Thailand’s deep south. On Aug. 15, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan conceded that the bombers might have been hired from the ranks of southern militants.

Thai authorities have a long record of ascribing acts of violence to domestic political rivals. In 1993, after militants set fire to 33 schools across the three southernmost provinces, some senior officials blamed “the old power clique,” who had lost influence following a recent change in government. Following a car-bomb explosion in the garage of a shopping center on the tourist island Koh Samui in April 2015, senior officials blamed a group of politicians who had lost power after a coup the year before.

These allegations were never substantiated, and the police eventually linked the bombing to other attacks in the deep south. Officials also tried to implicate Red Shirts in the bombing of a Bangkok shrine last year.

Why is the military government so anxious to deflect attention from the Malay-Muslim insurgency? First, officials deny that Thailand is a target for terrorism, especially terrorism arising from a chronic domestic insurgency. One goal is to protect Thailand’s vital tourism industry, which indirectly contributes 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Second, the military characterizes the insurgency as “disturbances” perpetrated by misguided individuals, which serves to minimize its political implications. Many Thai officials harbor a deep fear of international intervention, which they believe would eventually lead to partition. Further, acknowledging the recent attacks as the work of Malay-Muslim militants would also mean confronting the Thai military’s own counterinsurgency failures. Voters in the three southernmost provinces emphatically rejected the draft constitution, reflecting the region’s antipathy to the military and its centralization of power.

It is true that southern insurgents have largely refrained from attacking Thai targets outside the four southernmost provinces. But there are plausible explanations for why they might have decided to expand their operations now.

Last year, the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-prevention organization, noted the possibility that the insurgents, faced with stalemate and diminishing returns from routine attacks in the deep south, might strike in tourist areas outside the traditional conflict zone. The senior leaders of the B.R.N. have rejected the military government’s faltering peace process, which to them seems designed to maintain a semblance of talks without the substance of negotiations. Now, the referendum result may have revealed the futility of expecting to engage with an elected government in Bangkok, since the draft constitution entrenches the military government’s power for at least another six years.

If, as available information indicates, Malay militants perpetrated the recent attacks, then the conflict has entered a disturbing new phase. For 13 years, the insurgency has had little effect on the lives of most Thais outside the deep south. Now, a wider insurgency risks stoking militant Buddhism and sectarian conflict.

Early last year, in spite of a ban on political gatherings of five or more people, large Buddhist demonstrations were held against a halal-industry zone in Chiang Mai and the construction of a new mosque in Nan Province in northern Thailand. Last October, a monk in Bangkok urged that a mosque be burned for every monk killed in the deep south.

It would be shortsighted and self-defeating of the generals running Thailand to insist on dismissing these latest attacks as a partisan vendetta unconnected to the conflict in the south. They should recognize the insurgency as a political problem requiring a political solution. That means restoring the rights of freedom of expression and assembly to Thai citizens, engaging in genuine dialogue with militants, and finding ways to devolve power to the region.