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9 questions about Thailand you were too embarrassed to ask

Vinai Dithajohn/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Friday in Bangkok, about 24 hours after the Thai military had announced that its declaration of martial law and seizure of government buildings were in fact a coup, the now-deposed prime minister and about 150 other government officials marched dutifully to a military facility to turn themselves in.

This is Thailand's 12th military coup since 1932 — its last was in 2006 — making it the country with by far the most military coups, practically a routine here. But Thailand doesn't look like the sort of place to have so much political turmoil: it has a healthy middle-income economy, reasonably decent democratic institutions, and no big ethnic or religious conflicts. It's a nice place.

So you may be wondering what exactly is going on in Thailand. Why did it just have a coup? Why are its politics so messed up? What follows are the most basic answers to your most basic questions, written for people who might not be Thailand experts but would like to understand what's happening.

1. Why did Thailand just have a coup?

This is a surprisingly complicated question. There are three ways to think about it. The first is that Thailand has some very unusual characteristics that make this otherwise healthy country unstable and extremely susceptible to coups: impossibly divided politics, a big political establishment that isn't totally sold on democracy, and a king who is powerful enough to mediate but weak enough that he doesn't very often, leaving an opening for the military to mediate ostensibly on his behalf (more on that later).

The second is that this coup was not a stand-alone event, but just the latest chapter in a political crisis that's been continuously ongoing for many years, in which the country's mostly-rural population elects a pro-rural government, which is then ousted by the political establishment and its urban and middle-class supporters (more on this later as well).

The third way is to just look at the current crisis, which comes down to a national political fight between people who want majority democratic rule versus people who think that majority rule has led to a bad government that is not-so-secretly controlled by an exiled telecom billionaire living in Dubai. Yeah, welcome to Thailand.


A cardboard cut-out of Yingluck Shinawatra (left), prime minister from 2011 to this week's coup, and Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 to the 2006 coup. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images.

2. So what caused this most recent coup?

Let's take a step back. In 2001, billionaire telecom mogul Thaksin Shinawatra — that name is really important — got elected prime minister. He championed the long-neglected rural communities, who are the majority in Thailand, and challenged the political establishment. He also grabbed lots of power for himself and stifled media freedom.

In 2006, urban Thais protested Thaksin's government. The military, which is very close to the political establishment that Thaksin had so alienated, deposed him in a coup. He fled the country in 2008 to escape corruption charges. But Thaksin was still popular after the coup. His allies won a national election in 2007, and then again in 2011, when his sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister.

The spark that started all this came in October 2013, when Yingluck's party rewrote an amnesty bill, which was supposed to pardon civilian protesters swept up in political instability during earlier years, and expanded it to also absolve Thaksin for his corruption charge. It looked like Thaksin was manipulating the Thai government, through his sister, to give himself a pardon. Thaksin's opponents were convinced that the telecom billionaire was still running the government from Dubai, that their 2006 coup hadn't been enough.

In response, an opposition politician named Suthep Thaugsuban helped lead mass protests calling for Yingluck's government and her pro-Thaksin political party to be ejected from power entirely. That party has won so many elections that it was clear they had enough support to keep winning them, though, so Suthep and his protests didn't ask for a new election: they demanded that the democratically elected government be replaced by an unelected "people's council." In other words, they wanted to get rid of majority democratic rule, at least for now.

Suthep is a canny guy. He knew that the military was sympathetic to his cause, that in times of turmoil the military becomes a lot more likely to intervene, and that if there were a coup Suthep would get the non-democratic government he wanted. So his demonstrations did a lot of provoking: they stormed administrative buildings, blocked off major roads, and generally tried to force Yingluck to crack down, which Suthep knew would lead to violence that might provoke a coup. Meanwhile, the opposition party resigned from the parliament en masse, saying they wouldn't return to work until the people's council was in charge. Yingluck held snap elections to replace the parliament in February, but the protesters blocked many of the polls.

It was a lot of chaos. And it worked. On May 7, they got a judicial coup: the constitutional court ordered Yingluck to step down from the prime ministership, allegedly for abusing authority in removing a national security official back in 2011. On May 20, they got their military coup, when the army declared martial law and took control of the government.


A Thai military vehicle drives over pro-Thaksin "red shirt" protest barricades in Bangkok. PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

3. You said this coup was just another chapter in a years-long crisis. What's the crisis?

Since Thailand became democratic in the 1990s, these coups have been part of a long-running fight between the rural majority, which has enough supporters to keep electing governments, versus the political establishment. The rural majority can take power by winning elections; the establishment minority can take power through coups. So that's the cycle the country has been locked in for years.

The political establishment isn't just a group of a few dozen bureaucrats: it includes most urban middle-class as well as almost all of the country's political elite, its business leaders, judges, military officers, and most of the royal palace officials. It's millions of people. The middle-class and establishment aren't numerous enough to elect governments, but they are powerful enough to kick out those rural-elected governments through military and judicial coups. And they think they know better than those rural voters.

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. The conflict is that each of these two sides is strong enough to take power, but not strong enough to hold it: each wave of the crisis tends to be one side pushing the other out of power. It's stalemated political trench warfare that sometimes leads to actual bloodshed.

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.

4. How did Thailand get so addicted to coups?

Thailand has what scholar Nicholas Farrelly has called a "coup culture" — to be clear, that doesn't mean that Thai culture is somehow prone to coups, it means that Thai politics have developed an artificial culture in which coups are an accepted way of getting things done. So each coup makes more coups more likely. "Thailand's elite — and, to some extent, the public as well — have deeply internalised the ultimate acceptability of coups," Farrelly wrote in a 2013 Australian Journal of International Affairs article.

The first coup, in 1932, was the military replacing Thailand's absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy, which still has real political power. The problem is that both the military and the king still see themselves as above-it-all mediators who can step in whenever there is a political crisis. This encourages political leaders (like our buddy Suthep from above) to actively foment crises if they think it will lead to a coup and the coup will favor their interests.

Coups have become so normal that Thailand's political institutions, as well as its regular voters, have not felt compelled to find another way to resolve political conflict. The fact that people expect a coup, and that it is not seen as quite as objectionable as it is in other countries, makes those coups more likely.

Thailand's coup culture also partly comes from the country's military culture. Here's southeast Asia scholar Joshua Kurlantzick:

Other countries also had such coup cultures-think of Turkey-and eventually broke the cycle to the point where coups became unacceptable. Thailand has not done so. That's in part because, compared to nearly every army in the world, Thailand's military is particularly bloated with senior officers who are not needed for defense and war-fighting. Despite having no obvious external enemies, Thailand has over 1,700 generals and admirals-proportionally a vastly higher percentage than in the U.S. military. Most of Thailand's senior officers have no real jobs. Instead, they have come to believe they can gain prestige, work, and money only by intervening in politics.

5. Can we take a music break that is thematically relevant to explaining Thai politics?

Sure! Americans mostly experience Thai culture through its fantastic food, but Thailand also has great film and music scenes. Thai popular music really picked up in the 1970s, as part of a national political awakening among university students and the urban middle class, who fought against military rule.

In 1973, Thai students who held mass protests against the military dictatorship that had seized power two years earlier in a coup (yes, this is Thailand) started a new kind of music called "phleng phuea chiwit" or "songs for life." The genre blends Thai folk with Western rock and political lyrics — think of it as like the 1960s American protest songs that gave rise to people like Bob Dylan. Here's a song by the popular phleng phuea chiwit band Carabao:

The song, titled "Kaw Thoon Lei," is about Thailand's ethnic minority the Karen and their quest for their own independent country. It's not immediately relevant to the cycle of protests and coups, but it does show how engaged Thai society became with politics in the '70s. The 1973 protests against the military were ultimately resolved when the king stepped in, declaring on national television that the military had behaved irresponsibly, which the generals took as their signal to step down and allow civilian rule. (The military did retake power in a 1976 coup, though.)

6. I hear a lot about Thailand's king. What does he have to do with all this?

The king is part of the problem in Thailand. This is more for structural political reasons than because he is any kind of anti-democratic villain. As Thailand scholar Thongchai Winichakul wrote recently for Al-Jazeera, "Ultimately, while many foreign observers credit the Thai monarchy for the country's stability, it has become a destabilizing force and an impediment to democratization."

Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned as Thailand's king and official head of state since 1946, making him the longest-serving national leader alive today. He does not meddle in day-to-day politics, but he has sometimes played the role of a mediator who can step in to resolve disputes.

The fact that the king has acted previously as a political mediator is actually part of the problem. Thai democratic institutions didn't develop systems for solving problems democratically because they had this royal mediator. But now the king is 86 and he's not so involved anymore, which has left an opening for an outsider mediator — a role that the military is happy to fill.

Partly it also gets back to Thailand's dispute over democracy and majority rule versus rule by a minority elite. The minority elite naturally likes the idea of keeping the monarchy involved in politics, partly because it perpetuates rule by a small elite, and partly because the military and bureaucratic elite are tightly linked with palace officials and institutions; they're all part of the same establishment.

The other problem is that it's not year clear who will succeed the 86-year-old king when he dies; while the crown prince is next in line, there are long-running rumors that someone else may take power. This uncertainty worsens instability. "The unspoken backdrop to all this is the coming royal succession," journalist Mark Fenn wrote recently.

This uncertainty has the pro-monarchy political elite feeling paranoid — when the king dies, will they lose their influence forever? — and acting unusually aggressively to protect their role in politics. Thailand political observer and activist Pavin Chachavalpongpun explains:

The upcoming royal succession will place the unpopular Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on the throne. Members of the old power fear the day when Bhumibol will no longer be the force to protect their power interests. The protests in Bangkok reflect their anxiety over losing control as much as they do their antagonism vis-à-vis Thaksin, Yingluck and their supporters

Add on top of all this that Thailand's crazy-strict lese majeste laws make it illegal for journalists or analysts in the country to openly write about the king or his succession. That makes it really hard to have a national conversation about him and his role in politics.

7. So is Thailand a democracy or a monarchy?

It's both, and that's the conflict.

"Almost all coup attempts, successful or failed, occur in countries that are relatively poor and have political regimes that mix features of autocracy and democracy," Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who studies coups and other forms of state collapse, told me recently in explaining Thailand's many coups. While Thailand is not so poor anymore, Ulfelder explained, "These mixed regimes are especially susceptible to coups when politics within them is sharply polarized, as it has been in Thailand for nearly a decade now."

What we are seeing in Thailand is in many ways a fight over whether to let the country be fully democratic or keep some element of elite rule. This week's coup was the people who want elite rule asserting themselves.

On the surface, this coup and the crisis that led to it were about the middle class and establishment trying to put out the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecom billionaire who won office by appealing to the rural majority. That fight is partly about a telecom billionaire maybe exerting undue and oligarch-like influence, but it is also about the fact that he shifted power from the urban elite to the rural majority and the urban elite does not like that.

Because the fight in Thailand is over whether the rural majority can be allowed to dominate the government, as majorities tend to do in democracies, the fight often appears to be over democracy itself. The mostly-rural, pro-Thaksin majority obviously wants as much as democracy as possible because that helps them. And the establishment minority wants less democracy because that makes it easier for them to hold on to power.

This is why, for example, the late-2013 anti-government protests that played such a big role in sparking the recent coup were calling for a "People's Council" to replace the democratically elected government. You also saw this happen in 2007, when the parliament passed a constitutional amendment to finally make the Thai Senate fully democratic (currently, about half of the senators are elected and the other half are appointed by a committee of mostly judges; the amendment would have made all senators elected). The political establishment pushed for the constitutional court to reject the amendment, which they got, thus keeping the senate half-appointed and half-elected.

8. Is there a bizarre anecdote about cooking shows that demonstrates Thai politics at their craziest?

You bet. Samak Sundaravej, who was the prime minister for about eight months in 2008, was booted from office because he had hosted a couple of cooking shows, one of which was called "Tasting and Ranting." It's an awfully colorful story, but also a pretty serious one, and you can read all about it here.

9. I skipped to the bottom. What's going to happen next?

It's really difficult to say. So far the coup has been bloodless, and that's good. Given Thailand's reliance on the Western democratic world, the importance of its tourism industry, and the fact that the military is not exactly novice at this whole coup business, things will probably stay relatively calm.

That said, it is entirely possible that there will be massive pro-Thaksin, anti-coup protests, as there were in 2010 after the last pro-Thaksin government was ousted and replaced with a pro-establishment government. Those protests led to some very bad street violence that killed up to 100 people. There's no sign of this happening yet but the point is that there's a recent and worrying precedent.

Longer-term, there are basically three options. First, the Thai political establishment can finally resign itself to accepting democracy, even though that means the rural majority will keep electing people they don't like. Maybe the establishment will even figure out how to appeal to those rural voters. Second, the Thai establishment can use its overwhelming political power to just insist on stepping away from democracy altogether, as Suthep wants to do with his "People's Council" government, which would almost certainly lead to lots of protests and instability. Third, and perhaps most likely for the time being, Thailand may just keep its mixed, sort of democratic and sort of not democratic system. This system creates lots of problems but the status quo is always the most likely thing to persist.