Thailand’s recent military coup surprised many in the international community. Globally, the number of coups has declined 60 percent since 1963. All ten coups in 2004 failed, perhaps explaining why the Thai coup surprised many outside of Thailand.
In Thailand itself the coup was much less of a surprise. With a reputation for being coup-prone, Thai politics is difficult to understand and predict. Former Thai prime minister Dr. Pridi Banomyong, in his book Impermanence of Society, notes that, as in Buddhism, the only constant in Thai politics is impermanence. Pridi’s concept of impermanence remains to this day the most powerful construct for trying to understand the complex nature of Thai politics.
There are traditionally four major players in Thai politics: the monarchy, the military, civilian politicians, and the bureaucracy. In recent decades a fifth and sixth force have emerged, the media and a rapidly growing activist NGO community, both of which played a significant role in bringing down Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra by leading major protests against him in the months leading up to the 2006 coup.
The monarchy and the highly professional and well-educated bureaucracy, however, provide Thailand with remarkable underlying stability, despite its appearance of coup-prone instability. The current monarch, one of the world’s most popular and admired leaders, has been on the throne since June 9, 1946, making him the longest serving monarch in the world.
History of Coup and the Coup of September 2006
To understand the recent coup, it is important to review the history of coups in Thailand. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced a total of 23 military coups or coup attempts, only three involving any significant violence; 12 of these 23 attempts have succeeded. Table 1 shows the pattern of Thai coups over the past eight decades. Clearly the frequency of coups has been steadily declining, indicating that Thailand is indeed becoming more democratic, but that coups still do occur reflects that its democracy is not yet mature.
Thaksin, ironically, was an extremely popular political leader. His start in politics came through business. A former high-ranking police officer who left the public service to start a telecommunications business, his dynamic entrepreneurial vision allowed him to establish a huge transnational business conglomerate and in ten years become one of the wealthiest individuals in Southeast Asia and the world. He twice won landslide elections – in 2001 and 2005 – with his party performing better than any in history. In fact, he is the only Thai prime minister to have completed a full four-year term after an election.
In 1998, Thaksin decided to create a new political party, Thai Rak Thai (literally Thais love Thais). His enormous funds allowed him to attract many capable and popular local politicians to his party. With a philosophy of populism and a strong emphasis on channeling more funds to rural areas and communities, Thai Rak Thai developed a strong rural base.
Once in power, Thaksin implemented his populist economic policy, later termed “Thaksinomics.” Included were innovative programs such as “One Tambol, One Product,” a highly successful program to encourage each sub-district to develop a product in which it had a special comparative advantage. Unemployment under Thaksin dropped to an impressively low 1.8 percent (2005) and the Thai economy largely recovered from the economic crisis of 1997. Thaksin also implemented a national health policy that provided incredibly inexpensive health services to the Thai people.
This then raises the puzzling question: Why was there a coup against such a popular and dynamic, decisive political leader? Thaksin’s downfall resulted from a series of serious mistakes, miscalculations and a devastating albeit false accusation against him. They can be briefly summarized as follows:
He tried to rule Thailand as a CEO using a business model, which many critics saw as being undemocratic. He then used his wealth to undermine the important independent agencies and checks and balances established by the progressive 1997 constitution. When the media criticized his actions, he tried to silence them.
During his first term, he implemented a draconian anti-drug campaign that resulted in approximately 2,500 deaths. While reflecting Dr. Thaksin’s decisiveness, this action proved unacceptable in a Buddhist society that emphasizes a reverence for life. He also dealt with the terrorism and instability that surfaced in three Muslim-dominated provinces in the south with heavy-handed tactics. His policies backfired and led to escalating violence. This was a major area of conflict between him and the military leadership.
Dr. Thaksin was blamed for having a so-called Finland Plan to turn Thailand into a republic. Thus far, hard evidence has not been produced to substantiate this charge and formal charges against Dr. Thaksin in this arena have already been dropped.
Though he had turned over all his business to his family, there was strong criticism that his policies had favored his business interests and further enriched his family. To reduce criticism over this conflict of interest, his family sold one of their key businesses in early 2006, proving to be the biggest mistake of his political career. The company, Shin Corporation, was sold to Temasek Holdings, an investment arm of the Singapore Government, for US$1.88 billion. Thailand does not have a capital gains tax for this kind of stock transaction and Dr. Thaksin’s family paid no tax on the huge financial gain. There were huge public protests against Thaksin after this act, leading to his decision to dissolve Parliament and call for a snap election in April 2006. Irregularities in that election and Thaksin’s alleged illegal use of money to influence the outcome led to an election being annulled for the first time in Thai history.
Because of these troubles, there was a strong anti-Thaksin group in Thailand, primarily in Bangkok and the south. Pro-democracy advocates were particularly antagonized by what they saw as corruption and an attempt to undermine democracy.
The media, also antagonized, played a large part in Thaksin’s downfall. Sondhi, a highly articulate journalist and former business associate of Dr. Thaksin, accused Thaksin of being corrupt and dictatorial. In the months prior to the coup, Sondhi organized and spoke at weekly rallies against Thaksin in Bangkok. Other activities included using his weekly talk show to level forty charges against Dr. Thaksin and his government, and producing a popular yellow t-shirt saying “We will fight for the King.” Such mass media activity served to mobilize concentrated anti-Thaksin feelings in Bangkok.
The consensus on the street was that the only way for Thailand to rid itself of Dr. Thaksin was through a military coup. In a system dominated by money politics, there was no way that he could be defeated in the election that would have taken place in
November 2006. In terms of restoring Thailand’s most democratic system ever as reflected in the progressive 1997 Constitution, the coup took one step backward in the hopes of taking two steps forward.
In the evening of September 19, 2006, the tanks surrounding the Government House were the only visual evidence of the coup. It was peaceful coup and not a single shot was fired.
It is important to note that both the King and Prem Tinasulanond, head of the Privy Council and senior statesman (former Prime Minister, 1980-1988), were unhappy with Thaksin’s performance as prime minister. The Thai King, though above partisan politics, nevertheless may use his power of granting or withholding legitimacy when he sees the country in crisis (as in 1973, 1976, 1981, and 1992). The instance in 1981, when there was a coup attempt against then Prime Minister Prem, involved the King moving physically to Korat where Prem had fled to send a signal that the King was withholding legitimacy from the coup group. The King did not object to the coup against Thaksin or withhold legitimacy from the coup group, because he saw Thailand spinning into political chaos; there was no parliament, both major political parties were on the verge of being abolished, and there was potential for violent clashes between the highly polarized Thaksin and anti-Thaksin camps.
After the coup, there were pictures of smiling soldiers being given flowers by people in Bangkok. In Bangkok, where Dr. Thaksin’s popularity had declined considerably, many welcomed the coup.
Two groups in Thailand, however, were strongly opposed to the coup. First were those who were upset that democratic processes had been violated by the coup, and have since registered a number of protests. Even if they did not like Dr. Thaksin, they wanted to see him removed through a democratic electoral process. One recent articulation of this feeling occurred in book of essays in Thai on the coup, published by the magazine, Fa Dieo Kan in February 2007. A major theme of the book was that the coup reflected an elite minority dominating Thai politics.
The second group upset with the coup consisted of those in the countryside, especially in the north and northeast (representing roughly 54 percent of the electorate), who had benefited directly from Thaksin’s populist policies. In fact, a major legacy of the Thaksin government is that in the future, Thai political parties will need to be much more attentive to the needs of the rural poor.
The Future of Thai Democracy and Dr. Thaksin
Soon after taking power, the coup group put in place an interim constitution, appointed a prime minister and cabinet, and a National Legislative Assembly of 242 members. The cabinet, though gerontocratic (the prime minister and his cabinet have been labeled “Old Ginger”), includes several highly respected individuals, such as the new Minister of Education, Dr. Wichit Srisa-an, known for his integrity and commitment to innovation. Despite being an interim minister, Dr. Wichit has moved decisively to reform the admissions system for public schools to increase equity.
The coup was, therefore, understandably followed by high expectations for the new government. The government led by Anand Panyarachun installed after the last successful coup in 1991 was one of the most effective in Thai history. By contrast the performance of this government has been disappointing, particularly in its handling of the economy and, aside from Dr. Wichit’s school reform, noticeable lack of decisiveness – a sharp contrast with Dr. Thaksin. In the most recent political poll taken March 2, 2007, the approval rating of the new government had dropped to 34.8 percent from a high of 90 percent in early October of last year. This drop was magnified by the government’s handling of a series of eight bomb attacks in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve 2006 that killed three individuals and wounded others. Such political terrorism in Bangkok is unprecedented. The government too quickly blamed Dr. Thaksin and his supporters without evidence, which contributed to a decline in its own popularity.
In an attempt to strengthen the interim government, the King approved a cabinet reshuffle on March 7, 2007. Three new cabinet ministers were appointed, the most significant being the choice of Dr. Chalongphob Sussangkarn as the new Minister of Finance. Widely respected, he is a former economist at the World Bank and former president of Thailand’s major economic policy think thank, the Thailand Development Research Institute.
New elections are scheduled for later this year in December. One complication is that on May 30, the Constitutional Court will decide whether to abolish the Thai Rak Thai and/or the Democratic Party, based on allegations of illegal actions during the annulled April 2006 election. With the weakening and possible abolition of Dr. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party, the Democrat Party (if it survives) could possibly win the election, leaving Apisit Vejjajiva as the new Prime Minister. Apisit could be considered the “JFK of Thailand.” He is young, handsome, articulate, cosmopolitan, and like, Dr. Thaksin, highly educated. He is in stark contrast to the “Old Ginger” image of the current interim government. Another possible next prime minister is Dr. Somkid Jatusripitak, who, with a doctorate from Northwestern, was one of the most respected members of the Thaksin cabinet. He was asked to serve the new interim government to handle international economic matters, but quickly resigned after protests about his appointment.
Hopefully, the new government formed after the 2007 elections will return Thailand to the democratic path and not undermine the new constitution, which seriously needs to address the complex issue of the dominance of money politics. The new constitution is now being drafted and will be subject to the first national referendum in Thai history this coming summer. There is hope that it will build on the progressive nature of the 1997 constitution. The Democrat Party, though considered weak in decision-making, has consistently committed to democratic processes and provided prime ministers with personal integrity.
And what of the political future of Dr. Thaksin? In reflecting on the coup, Harvard-educated politician Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, stated, “Never has a leader been deposed with that much wealth and popular support and with that much at stake.” Given the impermanence of Thai politics, however, no one can see in the dark. Recently, anonymous fliers around Bangkok have featured pictures of current political figures and Thaksin with captions below their faces. The captions for the various politicians are negative, but for Thaksin it reads:
The poor will never forget you.
We will always wait for you.
As shown by this caption, many ordinary people in Bangkok are strongly pro-Thaksin. The coup is reflective not of universal disapproval of Thaksin but of the powerful influence of the Bangkok elite and middle classes.
While it is impossible to predict the ultimate outcome of the September 19 coup, it seems likely that if the current interim government proves corrupt, indecisive, ineffective, out of touch with the people, or unwilling to return power to a civilian government, that will contribute to future political turbulence and certainly enhance Dr. Thaksin’s chances of staging a political comeback, though he has publicly stated that he is finished with politics. Whether the coup, in a broader sense, will put Thailand back on the path to deepen its democracy will largely depend on the character and success of the new charter now being drafted and the outcome of the new national election to be held later this year. Thailand being Thailand, impermanence is still the key word to remember.