CURATED BY Max Fisher
2014-05-22 15:54:57 -0400
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On Monday, May 19, Thailand's military declared martial law, seized control of some government agencies and media organizations, and went on the air to declare that the coup it had just performed was definitely not a coup. Three days later, on May 22, the head of the army went back on national TV to announce that, yes, actually, this was a coup after all. Thailand is a democracy, if a weak one, so this is really not good.
But this isn't some one-off incident: it's part of a long, and in some ways continuous, cycle of Thailand political crises and military coups going back years. Thailand has endured 12 successful coups (plus seven attempted coups) since 1932. They are connected.
There are a few key things to understand about this cycle. Thailand has some factors that political scientists say make a country especially susceptible to coups, but there's a lot more going on here. There is a self-perpetuating cycle in which one coup leads to another. There is a king who is just powerful enough that people expect him to intervene over political disagreements but just weak enough that he doesn't. There is a superficial but contentious fight over a telecom billionaire who lives in Dubai and his attempts to influence Thai politics. There is a military that sees a big role for itself but tends to always take the same side. And, maybe more than anything else, there is a huge political divide between two very big segments of Thai society.
At its most basic level, this is about an unwinnable fight between Thailand's two main political factions that's been going on for years. Think about how bad the political divide is in the United States. Now imagine that there were way more Republicans than Democrats, such that Republicans almost always won elections, but that the Democrats represented almost everyone with real political power, from judges to generals to business leaders. Now imagine that the military and supreme court openly prefer Democrats, and isn't afraid to use its power to kick out Republicans. Throw in a few more problems — an ailing king, rural poverty, a habit of using mass streets protests to force political change — and you've got the basics of Thailand.
These cards tell the story of Thailand's nearly century-long coup addiction. That means the personalities and histories, the big-picture political science of how coups work, what the experts are saying, what it all means for Thailand, and how it explains the country's ongoing crisis as well as the many that came before.
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