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Thailand's coup addiction: the story of its 80-year, never-ending crisis

In the spring of 2014, Thailand's military deposed the democratically elected government in a coup — but it was, in many ways, just the latest chapter in a never-ending political crisis that has been ongoing for decades.

Thailand has a coup addiction

On Monday, May 19, 2014, 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's democracy had been suspended. A year later, the military junta still runs the country as an autocracy.

This wasn'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 decades. 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 as an outside arbiter — 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 almost everyone with real political power, from judges to generals to business leaders, were all Democrats. 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 some of the basics of Thailand.

Asking when the crisis began shows you how serious Thailand's problems are

Supporters of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rally in 2005 (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty)

Supporters of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rally in 2005 (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty)

Depending on how you look at it, this crisis:

  • Began in November 2013, with mass anti-government protests that sought to replace the elected government with an unelected "people's council." These led to violent street clashes, members of the opposition political party resigning en masse from the legislature, snap elections that protesters tried to prevent from going through, the prime minister dissolving the legislature, the country's top constitutional court removing the prime minister's power, and finally the military declaring martial law. Here's the full, crazy story of the current crisis.
  • Began in September 2006, when the military staged a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the start of a still-unresolved national fight between Thaksin's supporters and opponents. A billionaire telecom tycoon, Thaksin had been democratically elected in 2001 and again in 2005 but abused and expanded his power, infuriating the political establishment. He was unpopular enough in Bangkok to inspire mass protests there calling for his removal in 2005 and 2006, when he was exiled in a coup. But he was popular enough in other parts of the country that, in 2007, voters elected a pro-Thaksin party right back into office, though Thaksin himself was living in exile. Since then, there's been a series of fights between the national majority that seems to support Thaksin (they elected his sister Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister in 2011) versus the powerful political establishment that wants to keep him out (his sister Yingluck was removed in 2014's coup). The 2014 crisis is just another chapter in that battle.
  • Began way way back in 1932, the start of what scholars call Thailand's still-ongoing "coup season," which has seen now 12 successful military coups plus seven attempts. That first military coup, in 1932, replaced the centuries-old absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. The subsequent coups have been messier. The fact that Thailand has so many coups and political crises suggest that there are some deeper problems creating so much instability. Here's what makes those problems so tough.

There is some truth, of course, to all three of these overlapping narratives. But there's a lot more going on here as well.

The 2014 political crisis started over an exiled billionaire

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Hong Kong in 2012 (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages)

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Hong Kong in 2012 (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages)

This latest crisis is, on its surface, about a telecom billionaire named Thaksin Shinawatra who lives exiled in Dubai.

Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2001 and reelected in 2005. But in 2006 was deposed by — you guessed it — a military coup. He later fled the country to escape corruption charges. There is a real case against Shinawatra, who had abused power and curbed some basic political rights. At the same time, he had also angered the Bangkok political and business establishment, who do not like Thaksin because he had pushed them aside, eroding their power while appointing his own cronies

Shinawatra's party remained popular, though, and in 2011 his sister Yingluck was elected prime minister. But things didn't get really bad until late 2013.

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 the bill such that it would also absolve Thaksin's corruption charge. It looked like Thaksin was manipulating the Thai government, through his sister, to give himself a pardon — exactly the sort of abuses that had infuriated his opponents and led them to push for the 2006 military coup. It hardly mattered that the bill ultimately failed: 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 in late 2013 and early 2014 calling for Yingluck's government and her pro-Thaksin political party to be ejected from power entirely. Her party had won so many elections that it was clear they had enough supporters to keep winning them, so Suthep and his protesters didn't ask for a new election: they demanded that the democratically elected government be replaced by an unelected "people's council."

Suthep is a canny guy. He knew that the military was sympathetic to his cause, and 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 demonstrators 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 2014, but the protesters blocked many of the polls.

It was a lot of chaos. And, for Suthep and the opposition, the chaos worked. On May 7, they got their 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.

Here are the three big causes of Thailand's never-ending political crises

Anti-government protesters shut down a Bangkok street in February 2014 (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty)

Anti-government protesters shut down a Bangkok street in February 2014 (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty)

Thailand's May 2014 coup and its 2013-2014 political crisis have lots of causes that are particular to this moment. But it's probably not a coincidence that Thailand also has an 80-year history of military coups, of which there have been 12 (!!!) successes and seven failed attempts since 1932.

Some of this is because Thailand just happens to have a lot of the traits that make a country generally susceptible to coups. But some factors are more specific to Thailand. Here are what seem to be three of the big problems that help give Thailand such a coup-unrest habit:

There's a long-running battle for power between the urban minority and the poorer, rural majority, and it's a stalemate. There've been years of political trench warfare between two main political factions, both of which are powerful enough to take power but too weak to hold onto it. One side is the mostly rural, working class and poorer majority, which keeps electing governments friendly to its interests. The other side is the mostly urban, elite minority, which is too small to win an election but has enough political power to take power through military and judicial coups. Each side keeps pushing out the other, which typically leads to street protests and violence. This part is really important so read more here about why it happens.

There's a norm of using coups to resolve political crises. Thailand's first military coups, in the 1930s through 1950s, came a time when coups were a little less unusual in the world. But they've stuck around because there are structural forces in Thailand that make coups attractive and, more simply, because it's just become a habit. Coups are seen as an unusually acceptable way of resolving a political crisis, which means that people are more likely to push for them, and the military is more likely to oblige. This card explains how Thailand got its "coup culture" and how it works.

The king and his uncertain role in politics are part of the problem. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy in which the king has very real political powers, though he rarely exercises them. For a long time, he acted as a sort of mediator, stepping in to help resolve major political disputes. The problem is that now he is 86 and too old to do this, but the Thai political system has developed a dependence on outside mediation. The military has been happy to fill that role — but the military's "mediation" usually means coups that promote its self-interest. The other problem is that it's not clear who will succeed the king and this uncertainty may also worsen instability. Here's a rundown on why the king is causing so many problems.

Here's how a coup expert explained Thailand's coups

In December, when people started (correctly) predicting that Thailand would have another coup, its twelfth since 1932, I asked political scientist Jay Ulfelder why this country has more coups than any other on earth. Ulfelder, who blogs here, was careful to emphasize that he is not a Thailand expert, but he does specialize in studying coups and other forms of state collapse — and that broader perspective makes his analysis really insightful.

Here's a snip from our interview, which you can read in full here:

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.

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.

Coup activity also tends to cluster, so countries that have seen one or more attempts in the past five years are several times as likely to get hit by another than countries that have been coup-free for a while. We saw this pattern recently in Mali and Egypt, among other places.

Thailand has some important risk factors but not others, so it winds up in the middle of the global pack in terms of risk. It has a mixed regime with sharply polarized politics, but it's now a middle-income country, and it's managed to muddle along without another coup attempt since 2006.

The first takeaway from this is that Thailand has a lot of factors that make a country inherently at risk of coups: polarized politics, a government that is partly democratic and partly autocratic, a history of previous coups.

But the second takeaway is that Thailand, just based on these factors for predicting coup susceptibility, should have a lot fewer coups than it does. Ulfelder said it is "in the middle of the global pack in terms of risk," and yet countries with many more risk factors such as Sudan have not had a coup. This suggests there's some stuff highly unique to Thailand that makes the country's politics so coup-heavy.

The biggest issue: politics are divided between a weak majority and powerful minority

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra waves to supporters in May 2014 (Borja Sanchez-Trillo/Getty)

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra waves to supporters in May 2014 (Borja Sanchez-Trillo/Getty)

Probably the most important thing for understanding Thailand's instability since the country became quasi-democratic in the 1990s is that politics are divided between two factions. One of those factions has a lot more followers, meaning it can consistently win elections, but the other faction has an overwhelming share of the actual political power.

The smaller but more powerful faction, which experts often call "the establishment" or "the elite," tends to be based in Thailand's urban south and include a lot of wealthy and middle-class Thai. These are the people who ran the country before it was democratic and are still entrenched in powerful positions.

Then there's the mostly-rural majority, which has dominated just about every election for years. About two thirds of Thai live in rural villages, mostly in the country's north — that makes Thailand's population one of the most rural in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The rural majority has traditionally been left out of Thai politics. Now they have the numbers to win elections, but they don't have much in the way of entrenched political power beyond that.

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.

The fight often centers around Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom billionaire who became prime minister in 2001. Thaksin comes from the wealthy urban establishment, but made the very smart political move to appeal to the rural masses. He ran as representing their interests and challenging the political elite, and he did a lot to lift rural Thais out of poverty. (He also consolidated power for himself way beyond what was necessary to beat out the establishment.) So when you see Thailand fighting over Thaksin's influence in politics, it's partly about a telecom billionaire maybe exerting 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.

Typically this battle means the rural majority will elect a government that favors rural and poorer Thais, as they did by electing Thaksin prime minister in 2001 and 2005, his allies in 2007, and his sister Yingluck in 2011. Then the urban middle-class and elite will use their institutional power and influence to force that government out, as they did with a military coup in 2006, a judicial coup in 2008 (that means the constitutional court kicked out the elected government and installed a new one), and one of each in 2014. Often, this back-and-forth will involve mass protests from one side or both, which sometimes become violent.

Because the fight in Thailand is over whether the rural majority can be allowed to dominate the government, 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 called 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.

How Thailand got a coup norm

Thai soldiers deploy into Bangkok in early 2014 (Paula Bronstein/Getty)

Thai soldiers deploy into Bangkok in early 2014 (Paula Bronstein/Getty)

In late 2013, when political opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban started leading protests against the government, he was open about the fact that he was pushing for a military coup. Coups have simply become a normal way of solving deadlocks in Thai politics, and Thai politics have a lot of deadlocks. The mere fact that the country has had so many coups makes them a self-perpetuating problem. That they are considered normal — so normal that in mid-May many Thais snapped "coup selfies" of themselves with government-deposing troops — makes them more likely to happen.

The scholar Nicholas Farrelly has argued that Thailand has 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 and self-perpetuating way of getting things done.

"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.

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. This is why, as Farrelly writes of the years after Thaksin's allies won reelection in 2007 (a year after a military coup had ousted Thaksin himself), "With no consensus about appropriate mechanisms for managing political conflict, the years that followed were among the most turbulent and violent in Thai history."

This gives Thai politicians and activists on both sides of the country's political divide the incentive to push for a coup in the case of a big political deadlock. 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 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.

The king has real power and he is part of the problem

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2004 with his wife (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty)

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2004 with his wife (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty)

Since 1946, Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned as Thailand's king and its official head of state, making him the world's longest-serving national leader in power 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 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, though having a reigning monarch obviously tends to be not-great for democracy. 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."

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 has taken for itself.

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 a transparency problem: 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, or to clearly understand what's going on.

Here's a fun anecdote about cooking shows that shows how weird Thai politics can be

Former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in 2008 (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty)

Former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in 2008 (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty)

This is the story of how Samak Sundaravej, just eight months after becoming prime minister, was booted from office because of some cooking shows.

Samak became prime minister in early 2008. He was a career politician, but he'd also had a successful side career as a beloved, if avuncular, television chef. One of his most popular shows was called, "Tasting, Ranting." Sometimes it's translated instead as "Tasting and Grumbling" — you get the point either way.

Samak pledged that he would continue to host his shows after he took office, a sign of his regular-guy connection to Thais, and he did. He did a few episodes of "Tasting, Ranting" and another show called "All Set for 6 AM" (prime ministers have to get up early).

The problem is that the Thai constitution makes it illegal for senior political leaders to have any other employment. The idea of the provision is to prevent corruption; if, say, a finance minister were also a highly paid consultant for the national bank, it could be a conflict of interest. Now, obviously Samak was not going to skew Thailand's national politics to serve the interests of cooking shows. Still, he did break the law, and in September 2009, just eight months into his tenure, the constitutional court ordered him to step down as prime minister. It would be sort of as if the US Supreme Court annulled Barack Obama's presidency because of his book royalties.

Naturally, there was more going on. Totally separate from the cooking show issue, Samak and his government were at the time in the middle of an enormous and at times violent political crisis. Anti-government protesters had taken over much of Bangkok, including the airport; clashes between pro-government protesters and security forces had caused dozens of injuries and some deaths; there was a national state of emergency. Anti-government protesters had seized so many government buildings that Samak was working out of a military command post.

Clearly, the constitutional court had decided that the violence was out of control and that it had to intervene, using the cooking show as a pretext. Still, that doesn't change the fact that, at least on the surface, a national leader was deposed over a cooking show called "Tasting, Ranting." That's Thailand.

This timeline shows that today's crisis goes all the way back to 1991

You could start a timeline of Thailand's political crisis as recently as October 2013, when the latest protests began, or as far back as 1932, the first of the country's many modern-age coups. But it may make sense to put things in perspective with a timeline starting in 1991:

February 1991: Thailand's military deposes the government in a coup, the country's tenth since 1932. The officers portray themselves as guardians of democracy and promise elections.

May 1992: The military and its allies push to have the coup leader, a top army official, stay on as prime minister. This sparks massive protests, which the military attempts to put down with violence. The king intervenes, the coup leader resigns, and civilian rule is restored.

1992 to 1997: Things are pretty good. As southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick writes, "Thailand seemed poised for democratic consolidation. It held free and fair national elections. Civil society continued to flourish, and in 1997, Thailand passed a groundbreaking constitution. In retrospect, this was the high-water mark for its democratic transition." The economy grows rapidly.

Late 1997: The Asian financial crisis hits Thailand, and hard. Thai voters blame the political establishment, which gives an opening for a real political challenger to come in.

2001: Thaksin Shinawatra becomes prime minister by championing the country's rural majority and by challenging the entrenched political establishment, which had fallen out of favor after the financial crisis.

2005: Thaksin wins reelection. His efforts to challenge the political establishment start to look like he is also consolidating power for himself.

2006: The country's urban and middle class heavily protest Thaksin and his government, calling for a coup to oust them. In September, the military bloodlessly ousts Thaksin's government. Some of them wear yellow ribbons, the color of the king, suggesting links to the royal palace. They promise political reforms.

2007: A pro-Thaksin party wins the national elections.

2008: The shit hits the fan. Thaksin flees into exile over corruption charges. Street protests against the pro-Thaksin government (the anti-Thaksin protesters typically wear yellow, the color of the king, hence they are "yellow shirts.") turn violent, leading to a state of emergency. The pro-Thaksin prime minister is ousted that September in a judicial coup. The political establishment installs a pro-establishment government in power.

2010: Massive pro-Thaksin protests (the protesters are called "red shirts") break out. Almost 100 people are killed in street fighting; the military steps in to protect the government.

2011: A pro-Thaksin political party once again wins national elections. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, becomes prime minister.

2013: Anti-government protests again break out calling for the pro-Thaksin government to be removed.

May 2014: The pro-Thaksin government is removed by a double-whammy judicial and military coup.

April 2015: The military junta lifts martial law, but replaces it with special provisions in the junta-imposed "interim" constitution that basically institutionalize military dictatorship. Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is the prime minister.

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