World Analysis

Thailand's 19th coup underscores country's fatal flaw

The real question this time is what side the generals are on

May 31, 2014

Some Thais protested last week's coup, some brought flowers and cold drinks to the soldiers guarding the area near the Victory Monument in Bangkok, a popular protest site. (Associated Press)
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Since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was abolished, Thailand has had 25 general elections and 19 coups d'état, 12 of them successful.

In terms of regime changes, I suppose this makes Thailand a democracy by a slim margin.

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"Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe," Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons in 1947. "Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms."

He might have added that democracy is only better than all those other forms of government when people accept the results.

It is in the nature of elections that not everyone likes the outcome. There are winners and losers, and sometimes the winners are people with troubling views and backgrounds.

The month of May gave us two cases in point — the victory in India of Narendra Modi, a former state governor whose role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 is still open to question; and the election a few days later of numerous candidates with bigoted, jingoistic platforms to the European Parliament.

In between those two events the Thai army staged the nineteenth of its coups, revealing once again the fatal flaw in a country that is often enthusiastically, but wrongly, described as one of Asia's most vibrant, even robust, democracies.

The aging king

Still, it is true to say that the Thai people enjoy many freedoms and participate enthusiastically in multi-party politics, but the country's elections have become empty carnivals.

Political leaders and groups at both ends of the increasingly polarized political spectrum simply won't accept the results, and take their refusal out on to the streets.

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Police block protesters during a rally against military rule in Bangkok on Tuesday. The junta, which seized power Thursday, detained most top members of Thailand's elected administration and has ordered the rest to surrender. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)
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Soldiers took Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang into custody after he gave a surprise news conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha warned citizens on Monday, May 26, not to cause trouble, not to criticize, not to protest — or else face a return to the 'old days' of street violence. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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A Thai soldier receives a white rose from a supporter of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) at the criminal court in Bangkok. Prayuth called on anti-coup protesters to cease their small-scale demonstrations. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)
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A protester against military rule objects to being detained by soldiers during a Bankok rally on Sunday. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)
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A woman walks past soldiers providing security to the Army Club where senior army officials meet foreign diplomats in Bangkok on May 23, as Thai army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha set out his plans for the country after seizing power in a coup. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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Thai soldiers stand guard during a coup at the Army Club where Thailand's army chief held a meeting with all rival factions in central Bangkok on May 22. Thailand's military announced an overnight curfew after declaring the coup. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
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Thailand's army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, made the coup announcement in a television broadcast after meeting with pro- and anti-government factions, apparently with the aim of finding a solution to six months of anti-government protests. (Apichart Weerawong)
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The Thai army announced a curfew around the country from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. "in order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again ... and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power," said Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, right. (Reuters)
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Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha took control of the Thai government, saying the army had to restore order and push through reforms, two days after he declared martial law. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
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An anti-government protester waves a pair of national flags at a street gathering after the coup. Thailand is engaged in a protracted power struggle between supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and opponents backed by the royalist establishment. (Damir/Sagolj/Reuters)
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A Thai soldier carries the belongings of pro-government demonstrators leaving their demonstration site as the army ordered rival protest camps to break up. (Wason Wanichakorn/AP)
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Thai anti-government protesters carry their belongings as they leave their camp outside Government House after the coup. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Thai soldier holds hands with a member of the pro-government "red shirt" group. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)
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Anti-government protesters read morning papers inside their encampment in central Bangkok Wednesday. Talks for the day ended inconclusively with neither side backing down from their entrenched positions, participants said. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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A Buddhist monk offers energy drinks to Thai soldiers guarding a pedestrian overfly as Thailand finished its first day under martial law Tuesday. A military coup was announced the next day. ( Wason Wanichakorn/AP)

The army's frequent interventions in Thai politics have had a variety of motives, but the justification is usually the same: the military had to step in to restore order, give squabbling politicians a time-out, and rearrange the constitution so that this never has to happen again.

When it turns out, to no one's surprise, that the soldiers are not very good at running the country, they eventually hand power back to the civilians, and say they will not intervene again. Until next time.

The constant in this flux has always been the Thai monarchy, with its unique ability to impose restraint on politicians and the army alike. The revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 and has been king since June 1946, succeeding his older brother who died mysteriously from a gunshot wound. 

I was in Bangkok in 1992, when the King resolved a previous crisis known as Black May.

Dozens of people had been killed as the army tried to control huge demonstrations during a power struggle between the then prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and the opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang.

After four days of chaos, television programs were interrupted for a broadcast from the palace. The politicians were kneeling on the floor being scolded by His Majesty.

"I ask you not to confront each other but to work together to end the current violence," said the King, and the streets emptied instantly. The crisis was over.

Which side the generals?

Of course, Thailand's royal mystique can be used in this way only very occasionally if it is to retain its authority, and its absence in the current turmoil could cost the country dearly.

At 86, the King is too frail to act, which means that the stakes today are higher than ever — the winners will probably be in power when the King dies, and the succession takes place.

'What we are doing today is to try and bring everything back to normal. We intend to return hap[iness to everyone,' says Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's coup leader. (Associated Press)

The heir to the throne, 62-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has a reputation as an unpredictable libertine with a lavish lifestyle. He will never be regarded the same reverence as his father.

It is also too soon to judge the intentions of the new military junta, which is calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order.

But it is unlikely to be an impartial referee between the two powerful groups in Thai politics, named after the colour of their shirts — red and yellow.

Strip away the colour coding, the personalities and the ever-changing alphabet soup of organizations and parties, and you find a familiar political divide. Rice farmers, peasants and workers on the red side, the moneyed class and aristocrats on the yellow.

An added wrinkle is that the red machine is the creation of a telecoms billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has lived in exile in Dubai since being deposed by the military while out of the country in 2006.

In the early 2000s he won successive elections with a program of subsidies, loans, and cheap health care that was wildly popular with poorer Thais.

His influence from exile remains decisive, as his sister Yingluk won the last election in 2011, and would easily win again, say analysts, if a new election were held tomorrow.

The yellow alliance brings together royalists, who think Thaksin was too big for his boots, and the urban elite, who are often frank in their bewilderment that the votes of peasants, drivers and maids have a value equal to their own.

When the red majority has prevailed, the yellows have taken to the streets to shut the capital down.

When the yellows have managed to use institutions such as the courts and the electoral commission to get the reds removed, then the reds, in their turn, resort to the politics of the street.

In the twilight of the world's longest-reigning monarchy, divisions between rich and poor are worse than ever, and the heir to the throne is an unpopular playboy prince believed to have business ties with an exiled tycoon — Thaksin ​— scheming to come home.

With so much wealth and power at stake, it is very possible that this time the generals may not be acting with the interests of their divided nation at heart, but their own.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Brown
Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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