This morning here but this afternoon in Thailand, the country’s military leadership sealed the deal on a coup d’etat when it announced via national television that it was taking control of government.
The declaration of martial law that came two days earlier didn’t quite qualify as a coup because it didn’t involve a seizure of power. Most academic definitions of coups have involve (1) the use or threat of force (2) by political insiders, that is, people inside government or state security forces (3) to seize national political power. Some definitions also specify that the putschists’ actions must be illegal or extra-constitutional. The declaration of martial law certainly involved the use or threat of force by political insiders, but it did not entail a direct grab for power and technically was not even illegal.
Today’s announcement checks those last boxes. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised by this turn of events, but not shocked. In my statistical assessments of coup risk for 2014, Thailand ranked 10th, clearly putting it among the highest-risk countries in the world. In December, though, I judged from a distance that the country’s military leadership probably didn’t want to take ownership of this situation unless things got significantly worse:
The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired [by anti-government forces angling for a coup]. 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.
I guess the growing concerns about an impending civil war and economic recession were finally enough to tip military leaders’ thinking in favor of action. Here’s hoping the final forecast I offered in that December post comes true:
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.