Arrested democracy: why Thailand needs a new social contract

The Thai military may think its May takeover has run smoothly but authoritarian dictates and an elite power monopoly will not keep the country together in the longer term.

Marco Mezzera
7 July 2014
Thai soldiers coming out of truck

Out of their barracks: Thai soldiers days after the coup. Prachathai / Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 20 May 2014, after some seven months of political squabbling between two opposing popular movements and their political patrons, the Thai military finally decided to take matters into its own hands. This was the twelfth time the army had intervened in the political life of the country since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932; seven other such coup attempts failed.

As in the past, its declared objective was the restoration of peace and order to a situation that ran the risk of spinning out of control, if violence were to escalate between the two main camps. These are the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Red Shirts movement, and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), originally defined as the Yellow Shirts movement.

The Thai army has always had an inner distrust of, if not outright contempt for, any political confrontation which threatened to disrupt the country’s social harmony. And its most recent intervention clearly indicates that it thought the political quarrelling and indecisiveness had gone on for far too long.

This time, however, the army approached the task in a more gradual and subtle way. Rather than dismissing civilian state authorities at the outset, it moved step by step, introducing martial law while formally preserving some of the country’s legislative and judicial institutions. Even the caretaker government was not immediately stripped of its powers. The main message was nevertheless clear from the start: a political comprise was to be reached within 24 hours or the army would enforce one in its own way.

By summoning the main representatives of the opposing political parties and movements, the military attempted to play a mediating role from a position of force. Ironically, it put itself in what for many peace mediators and facilitators is an ideal situation—that of having the power to enforce an agreement. But apparently the summoned parties did not intend to play by the army’s script, thereby making a serious misjudgment of the gravity of the situation. Rather than acknowledging the ultimatum and abiding by it, they sustained their obstinate unwillingness to seek a compromise and even reiterated their intentions to continue with the demonstrations planned for the following days.

Such a recalcitrant response was probably precisely what the military had been waiting for. Just two days after the introduction of martial law, the head of the self-appointed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), General Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced the complete takeover of all state roles by the army, with the exception of some judicial functions.

Turning back the clock

Within hours of the coup announcement, it was clear that its meticulous planning included  minimisation of the use and show of violence. On the morning of 23 May, from the international airport of Suvarnabhumi to the commercial centre of the “city of angels”—a stretch of highway and congested inner roads of about 30km—only one inactive military post could be seen.

While some decisive action was undoubtedly taken at the demonstration sites, this intervention had been much more effective and violence-free than that four years earlier, when 91 people lost their lives in the attempt to disband the Red Shirts’ barricades. Although the TV blackout and severe media restrictions introduced by the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council[1] immediately after the coup make it difficult to assess the facts as they evolved on the streets of Bangkok, the dismantling of the protest sites evidently happened without major violent confrontations. Newspapers were even reporting on 24 May that thousands of protesters had been paid by government officials to abandon them. And the traditionally vibrant shopping in the many malls of the city seemed to return to normal, disturbed only slightly by the introduction of a curfew between 22:00 and 05:00.

The troubled Thai democratisation path has once again revealed its persistent weaknesses, primarily its continuing incapacity to avoid military interventions.

Judging from the way most Bangkok residents seemed to respond to the coup—immediately resuming their normal lives—the military was successful in attaining its primary declared objective of restoring peace and order. But the longer-term goal of making Thailand governable still seems very remote, especially if this is to be realised through democratic means.

No matter how dysfunctional or factional the political process, a coup is bound at a stroke to turn back the clock. Take Pakistan, another Asian country imbued with the effects of regular military interference in state affairs. Every time a general claims the right to determine its destiny, whatever fragile democratic institutions have succeeded, however tentatively, in putting down roots in society are inevitably suffocated. And the process of democratic evolution will have to start all over again once civilian authority is legitimately re-established.

But what if the “legitimate” political actors are entangled in such a struggle for power and dominance that they risk taking the state to the brink of self-destruction? What if their parochial interests are about to unleash a violent confrontation likely to affect the whole country? Is an “external” intervention which ostensibly acts on the principle of impartiality towards the conflicting parties not possibly the best—perhaps even only—remedy to prevent a descent into chaos? And is it not therefore a guarantee of a return to a democratic path as soon as conditions will allow? If the political game is going nowhere, as was the case in Thailand, with a seemingly insurmountable stalling of the electoral process, is it then not better to call in a superior force formally detached from the political framework—preferably with a monopoly on the use of violence—to dictate the (new) interim rules of the game?

Hardly disinterested

The problem with this Machiavellian approach to political crises is that the attribution of impartiality to the intervening, “non-political” actor is rarely accurate. An army announcing a coup is hardly a disinterested or apolitical player as it becomes involved in a country’s struggle over its future national identity and the reorganisation of power relations.

Despite the Thai army’s attempts to present its intervention as politically neutral—that it is simply interested in re-establishing peace and order—reports emerging in the aftermath suggested that those affiliated to the Red Shirts movement were being particularly targeted. While representatives of both camps were initially summoned and detained by the army, those belonging to the Democrat Party and PDRC seem to have enjoyed a more lax treatment, with easier release procedures than those reserved for their opponents.[2]

Although the army has an aversion to political activism, regardless of its colour, the Red Shirts camp has been mainly at the receiving end of military attention since the beginning of the political crisis in 2006. The movement’s ideological leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, was the elected prime minister when military leaders removed him from power in September that year.

Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile, fearful of becoming subject to biased judicial procedures, while his sister, Yingluck, acted as prime minister after the resounding victory of her Pheu Thai party in the elections of July 2011. This time, the military intervention eventually meant an abrupt end to her government—with no guarantee that she or her party would be reinstated any time soon.

Since the movement’s inception, the Red Shirts have been defined by their opponents as anti-national and unsympathetic to the royal house. The self-aggrandising personality of their leader has certainly fuelled allegations that Thaksin was challenging the hitherto undisputed and symbolic authority of the ageing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Whether such claims can be substantiated, they have become part of the discourse in Thai society and have been incorporated into the contest between the two camps.

As the guarantor of national unity and protector of the crown, the army has thus had an easy argument to justify its intervention, particularly its targeting of Red Shirts’ representatives for their alleged offences against the monarchy. In the aftermath of the coup the NCPO indicated that the sections of the Criminal Code being subject to court-martial proceedings were those dealing with “national security” and, more precisely, offences against the royal family.

But the apparent bond linking the Thai armed forces to the monarch seems more subtle and disputed than at first apparent. According to other interpretations of the coup, the army had grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of an alliance between the Thaksin camp and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. In April 2013, a decree by the king expanded the powers of the Royal Guard regiment, allowing it to engage in any action which its supreme commander, the prince, deemed necessary to protect national security. The likely problem with that move, in the eyes of the rest of the military, was that the regiment’s recruits come mainly from the north and north-east of Thailand—Thaksin’s traditional political stronghold.

A few months later, another royal decree gave veto power to the crown prince over all decisions taken by the defence council, placing de facto all the heads of the armed forces under his control. There have also been widespread rumours that Thaksin may have paid some of the prince’s considerable gambling debts. These various developments are said to have upset the higher echelons of the military and may explain the prince’s sudden journey to Europe—just a few days before martial law was announced.

In addition, there are indications that the army’s intervention may have had an economic dimension. With Thaksin’s peculiar style of merging political and economic interests, parts of the country’s elites represented by the opposing block may have feared being gradually excluded from the most important economic deals being negotiated by the government and its affiliates. Since Thaksin has been known for focusing mainly on transactions with large business conglomerates, the coup was received with a sigh of relief by the small and medium-sized enterprises sector.

A last throw of the dice?

In the final analysis, however, the coup has exposed a general failure of the governance system and of those institutions—the military included—supposed to keep the country together. The troubled Thai democratisation path has once again revealed its persistent weaknesses, primarily its continuing incapacity to avoid military interventions.

The political parties have failed to provide a credible alternative to the authoritarian approach and their record in terms of internal democracy has been abysmal. The traditional establishment, which includes the military, the royal house and the upper classes of society, has failed to create an advanced system able to deal in a democratic, non-violent way with the new challenges brought about by Thaksin’s populist policies. And the coup has exposed a fundamental failure on the part of the military to reform itself in such a way as to make any intervention in national politics both impossible and unacceptable.

The coup could thus be regarded as a last attempt by a system in retreat to counter the inevitable course of history, including the emergence of governance arrangements more responsive to the evolving demands of society.

Thailand has been integrated into the global economy for decades. The increasing exposure of its population to the accompanying aspects of globalisation—such as the democratic mechanisms which regulate the political life of most of the societies with which Thais interact—must have left a mark on society. It can thus be expected that the Thai population, especially the younger cohorts, will increasingly demand proper access to and participation in the political processes which affect their daily lives.

At the same time, democracy in Thailand will need to go beyond the winner-takes-all approach which characterises the country’s electoral contests. Checks and balances will need to be incorporated so that a more broadly based consensus can be achieved and sustained.

The forces of the current establishment, which profess to be anti-Thaksin and resist the influence in politics of those rural masses whom they consider dangerously ignorant and unsophisticated, must also realise that power-sharing and acceptance of divergent political views is part of the democratic game. A new social contract needs to be negotiated between the wider society and the elites which have had privileged access to and control over power.

In turn, society itself will need to come to terms with the polarising divisions of the new millennium threatening to tear it apart. A degree of social cohesion is needed—if not a common vision for the future of the country, at least widespread acceptance of the principle that those involved in political confrontations must renounce violence and instead interact according to accepted, institutionalised mechanisms.

Thailand may be close to reaching the end of its current historical trajectory. At this critical juncture—with the uncertainty of the monarchical succession also playing an important role as events unfold—the dominant coalition which has controlled the fate of the country will have to give up part of its power and make decision-making more inclusive, if it wants to survive and avoid irreparable fractures in society. Space for a genuine dialogue and even ideological contest needs to be opened up, including on other thorny issues such as the conflict in the south of the country. Only then will state institutions be considered legitimate and a more resilient society eventually emerge.

This article, originally published as a NOREF paper, appears courtesy of NOREF with appreciation.

[1] This is the name chosen by the military for its institutional body overseeing the transition, before turning it into the NCPO and after it had been initially named the Peace and Order Maintaining Command.

[2] For example, on 26 May 13 PDRC leading figures, including its secretary general, Suthep Thaugsuban, were released on bail.

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