One Outsider’s Take on Thailand

Justin Heifetz at the Bangkok Post asked me this morning for some comments on the current political situation in Thailand. Here is a slightly modified version of what I wrote in response to his questions.

I won’t speak to the specifics of Thai culture or social psychological theories of political behavior, because those things are outside my areas of expertise. What I can talk about are the strategic dilemmas that make some countries more susceptible to coups and other breakdowns of democracy than others. Instead of thinking in terms of a “coup culture”, I think it’s useful to ask why the military in the past and opposition parties now might prefer an unelected government to an elected one.

In the case of Thailand, it’s clear that some opposition factions recognize that they cannot win power through fair elections, and those factions are very unhappy with the policies enacted by the party that can. There are two paths out of that conundrum: either seize power directly through rebellion, or find a way to provoke or facilitate a seizure of power by another faction more sympathetic to your interests—in this and many other cases, the military. Rebellions are very hard to pull off, especially for minority factions, so that often leaves them with trying to provoke a coup as their only viable option. Apparently, Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters recognize this logic and are now pursuing just such a strategy.

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

So far, Pheu Thai and its supporters seem to understand this risk and have mostly avoided direct confrontation in the streets. According to Reuters this morning, though, some “red shirt” activists are now threatening to mobilize anew if Suthep & co. do not back down soon. A peaceful demonstration of their numbers would remind the military and other fence-sitters of the electoral and physical power they hold, but it could also devolve into the kind of open conflict that might tempt the military to reassert itself as the guarantor of national order. Back on 1 December, red shirts cut short a rally in a Bangkok stadium after aggressive actions by their anti-government rivals led to two deaths and dozens of injuries, and there is some risk that fresh demonstrations could produce a similar situation.

On how or why this situation has escalated so quickly, I’d say that it didn’t really. This is just the latest flare-up of an underlying process of deep socio-economic and political transformation in Thailand that accelerated in the early 2000s and probably isn’t going to reach a new equilibrium of sorts for at least a few more years. Earlier in this process, the military clearly sided with conservative factions struggling to beat back the political consequences of this transformation for reasons that close observers of Thai politics surely understand much better than I. We’ll see soon if they’ve finally given up on that quixotic project.

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

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  1. You don’t mention the monarchy at all yet it seems many who comment on the situation in Thailand assume that the opinion of the royal household is important in determining whether or not the crisis escalates or is diffused. If that’s true at all, I do wonder if a King Carlos of Spain moment – the unambiguous support of democracy in the face of an attempted coup -would play a decisive role in shaping the country’s political future.

    • Grant

       /  December 11, 2013

      The Spanish military and Thai military have very different politics. The Spanish military was politicized by the Spanish Civil War (obviously) and for decades Spain was led by a military leader.
      In contrast the Thai military since World War II has had a history of fighting itself (and by that I mean that at one point the army and navy were openly fighting each other), coups, alliances with factions of civilians, and being pushed out by protests.
      I’m not going to pretend I can get into the heads of the Spanish soldiers, but it seems to me that the Spanish military was far more united around the direct authoritarian model under military control than the Thai one is.

      As for the kings, very hard question, especially since I’ve never looked much at Carlos and his accomplishments (which actually is an oversight on my part). However they seem to have had very different circumstances. Carlos was brought in by Franco in an attempt to get more legitimacy and to cultivate a nice, pro-authoritarian king while the Thai king (whose name I won’t use for brevity) came to power after his brother’s murder in an unstable Thailand and the Thai king hasn’t shown the same focus on promoting democracy that Carlos has.

  2. For a longer and level-headed overview of the current state of Thai politics as of mid-December 2013, see this post by Kim McQuay on the Asia Foundation’s blog:

  1. Konfliktbevakning 2014: civil-militära relationer | Johan Larnefeldt
  2. Military Coup in Thailand | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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