Thailand’s Coup Affliction

The Thai word for military coup is Rataprahan, which literally translates to “execution of the state.” This may have initially sounded intimidating, but by now the word has lost most of its weight.

The 2014 coup in Thailand marked the twelfth instance of the army stepping in and wresting control from the government. Turbulent politics that usually end in protests and violence have made military intervention the norm, and the Thai population has, begrudgingly, accepted the military’s constant presence in the country’s political sphere. This prompts the question of why Thailand is so prone towards having coups in the first place. What affects the likelihood of coup activity in a country? Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies military coups, says that significant factors include wealth, form of government, as well as previous occurrences of coups.

According to Ulfelder, rich countries, whether or not they are democratic, rarely experience coups. A study by Egil Fossum on military coups in Latin America explains this by relating gross national product to social inequality. The poorer a country is, the more stratified its social hierarchy, which results in polarization between economic groups. This polarization could then trigger military intervention in two ways. The military could step in order to break a constitutional deadlock, which happens when the legislature can’t agree on which bills to pass, or it could influence elections to benefit private interests. Thailand has a Gini Index of 44.5, while countries like Finland and Sweden score somewhere in the twenties. This means income distribution in Thailand is still relatively unequal, so we see politics play out the way Fossum predicts.

Adding to that, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Mixed regimes like these, Ulfelder says, are more susceptible to coups if there is polarization within the country. Thailand is divided into two political factions, one colloquially called the “red-shirts”, and the other the “yellow-shirts.” These names come from colors that each group prefers to wear during public demonstrations. The red-shirts are largely made up of the rural majority, while the yellow-shirts consist of the urban middle class and conservative elites. The red-shirts have the majority in votes, so the candidates they support have won  for the past four elections. They support the People’s Party, whose left-wing policies are geared to engender support from the masses. The yellow-shirts don’t back a specific party, but despise the People’s Party’s populist tendencies. The reason behind this is that the yellow-shirt group includes high-ranking officials in political institutions, who had power when the country was still a monarchy and are still holding on to it post-democracy. These elites have their own agenda, which is defending the status quo of centralized power. What the yellow-shirts do not have in votes, they have in political influence. Institutions like the judiciary and the military made their stance against the red-shirts clear when they ousted the government in both a judicial and military coup in 2014.

The last point Ulfelder makes is related to clustering. Frequent coup attempts in past years, he says, increases the probability of future coups. In Thailand’s case, this does not have tobe explained much further. People have come to expect military coups whenever political situations turn ugly. Before the military took over, yellow-shirt protests led by former Democrat Party member Suthep Thaugsuban had shut down Bangkok’s important streets and government buildings. The military successfully halted this civil unrest, true, but solving problems in this way has repercussions on democracy.

Thailand has had seventeen constitutions since its shift into democracy in 1934, which is just another indicator of its unstable politics. During its rule, the junta held a referendum to introduce a new constitution, which was ultimately approved by 61 percent of voters. At first glance, the process had seemed democratic – the military government tried its best to encourage participation in the referendum with television ads, and also made the constitution draft available online. However, there was one catch. The junta banned all public opposition to the draft, so no one was allowed to campaign against it. The draft is ninety pages of dense formal language, so some aspects that might be undesirable to voters would not be immediately obvious. Add that to the fact that people with actual knowledge on legal matters can’t publicly criticize the draft, and the overall picture of the referendum is that it wasn’t so democratic, after all.

The constitution changed the election system so that almost two hundred of the two hundred and fifty senate seats will be filled by people chosen by the military government. Six of those seats will belong automatically to the Minister of Defense, Chief of Defense Forces, and the Commanders in Chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Police Force. These changes come into effect after an election is held to pick a new government, so from then on the military would actually have a cemented position in the political system.

Future repercussions of these senate posts aside, Thailand’s dependence on the military to end political stalemates has also made it unable to solve problems democratically. Back in 2006, there were mass protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for his corruption allegations. The military ended up deploying tanks into the streets where protests were happening, and declared martial law as they did in 2014. There is a recurring pattern of public demonstrations followed by military intervention, but a marked absence of negotiations between opposing parties.

The junta recently announced a tentative date for an election in 2018. These plans may or may not actually come to fruition, but just setting up elections so the country can go back to having a democratically elected government should not be the only goal. When Thais received news of the coup d’état, they saw history repeat itself. What will stop it from doing so again? This is a question with complicated answers, but a poignant one is this: people should simply care more. There are certainly other, more concrete ways to go about breaking the coup cycle, but public ideology remains important. In July, 2016, the Turkish population rose up against an attempted coup, facing soldiers and tanks with kitchen utensils. They defeated the coup with help from royalist soldiers and the police force in less than a day. This is not to say that Thais did not lead demonstrations against the coup, but not enough of them did, and the military won out in the end. A critical aspect of democracy is popular sovereignty, and its idea rests on the belief that the state is created by the will of its citizens. An “execution of the state” is thus the execution of the people’s will, and shouldn’t be as nearly as acceptable as it is.