Thailand coup: There's 'an ongoing reset button'

The roots of the latest political crisis in Thailand to spark yet another bloodless coup could be the anticipation of a royal secession in the country, which continues to struggle in the transition to a functioning democracy.

Country has been suffering through a political power struggle since 2006

The roots of the latest political crisis in Thailand to spark yet another bloodless coup could be the anticipation of a royal succession in the country, which continues to struggle in the transition to a functioning democracy.

"Thailand sort of goes into a cycle of they have a coup, they put in an interim government, they have an election, those guys start being disliked, protesters take to the street, then it gets violent, they have a coup," said Murray Hiebert, deputy director for Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"They have an ongoing reset button."

This latest coup, the 12th since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, was the culmination of the battle between the Red Shirts (rural residents and supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra) and the anti-government middle class Yellow Shirts, supporters of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

​"What we have now is an existential battle between the elites in Bangkok, who are educated, middle class, against the rural guys who are starting to make more money and becoming middle class — and want to have a say in how the country is run," Hiebert said.

"So what the danger is now is that the Red Shirts think their elected government has been taken out. So they're clearly going to feel that they’ve been disenfranchised."

But much of this jockeying for power may have more to do with the health of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

'Both sides want to be in the saddle'

"What's underlying it is sort of a competition for the future of Thailand … and who is in charge when the royal succession happens," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Both sides want to be in the saddle and have the institutional clout when the transition happens," Hiebert added.
Thailand's military seized power Thursday in a bloodless coup, dissolving the government, suspending the constitution and dispersing groups of protesters from both sides of the country's political divide. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

The country has been suffering through a political power struggle since 2006, when billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup. Shinawatra, who was forced into exile after the Supreme Court in 2008 sentenced him to two years in prison for corruption, still maintains wide support, particularly among the rural majority.

His sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011 and had led a caretaker government until December when she dissolved parliament following weeks of violent and sometimes deadly anti-government demonstrations. She has also been accused of corruption. Earlier this month, the country's Constitutional Court dismissed her from office, accusing her of abuse of power.

"This coup is the attempt to put an end to the second round of Shinawatras being in power," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand

"This coup, you could say, indicates that the first coup was botched, because Thaksin's party still was able to come back," Chamber said. "And so this coup indicates, here we go again. It's Groundhog Day. Déjà vu. Eight years later, there’s nothing new under the sun in Thailand. It’s the same game." 

And it was in this political chaos that army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced he was taking power and suspending the constitution.

The military has never come under full control of the civilian government in Thailand,"  said Aim Sinpeng, a scholar at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute of Global Issues. 

"The military remains one of the most important institutions in the governing of the country. Some powerful sections of Thailand see the military as the institution of conflict resolution."

'A trending toward democracy country'

Hiebert compared the military's actions to a father who is constantly intervening when two brothers are fighting.

"At some point they have to figure out the father might not be around all the time. That’s what Thailand needs," Hiebert said. "It's basically a trending-toward-democracy country. They have democracy and then it ends and starts again."

The move by the military, which, while trying to appear neutral is clearly on the side of the Yellow Shirts, could be a signal to Thaksin. He has been accused of disrespecting the monarch and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne

Any military action would most likely have had to have been approved by the privy council — the advisory group to the king. And the privy council doesn't act without the green light from the palace.

"We have the monarchy and the military in this asymmetrical alliance," Chambers said.

Chambers said the next steps will be the appointment of an arch-royalist government and then a constituent assembly to create a new constitution.

Kurlantzick said they will try to reduce the power of the Shinawatra family, try to preserve the power of the oligarchy, and then, in the far future, have an election.

"People are still going to vote for a Shinawatra-type party, so I don't know what they're going to do then," he said.

With files from The Associated Press