On September 19 troops of the Thai Army’s 4th Cavalry battalion moved into Government House and other strategic points in Bangkok. Army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin ousted the caretaker administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and announced a new Democratic Reform Council, subsequently renamed the National Security Council (NSC). The General suspended the constitution, declared martial law and informed anyone who cared to listen that normal democratic processes would be resumed as soon as possible.
Supporters of the coup cheered, waving national flags and shouting, “Thaksin out.” Even local tourists joined in, treating the evening’s events as an extra, unexpected photo opportunity. “I found out about this when my parents rang and told me”, said Danish tourist Jannick Bondrop. “They were worried for me, but I’m not afraid. To see this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” In this, to be sure, Jannick merely demonstrated the tourist’s characteristic ignorance of Thai history (of which more in a moment).
The morning after the coup, Bangkok commuters struggled to work as usual, transportation only slightly incommoded by the odd armored personnel carrier rumbling through the streets. As before the coup, the impressive Thaksin-era mass rapid transport system whisked commuters to the central business district and shoppers to the hypermodern malls of Siam Square. Meanwhile, the massage parlors off Thanon Sukhumvit and the street markets, hawking everything from imitation Calvin Klein jeans to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, hardly missed a beat, or an unsuspecting tourist. The share market retreated a bit, bonds rose, and the Thai baht dropped a tad against both the yen and the U.S. dollar. Nothing particularly dramatic, and, of course, no one got hurt—not so much as a scratch, or even any furniture broken. As coups go, this one was so gentle as to be downright cute, if not altogether lovable.
The contrast between the hyperventilating newscasts announcing the coup and the normality of daily life in Bangkok was striking. Why was this? Does the coup portend economic and political instability for Thailand and Southeast Asia generally, or is it as benign as its perpetrators claim? How should U.S. policymakers react to this smiling coup in a state that has long been a cornerstone of U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia?
Thailand has a long history of both military coups and constitutions. Indeed, the Thai army, like other militaries across Southeast Asia, has exercised a powerful hold over the development process and continues to see itself as responsible for the integrity of the state. Thailand, in fact, pioneered the modern military coup in 1932, and there have since been 17 successful ones—and several unsuccessful ones, as well. No surprise, then, that the Bangkok middle classes went to their desks following coup no. 18 with what appeared to be less curiosity than learning what might be behind “door number three”, or how the next round of “one potato, two potato” might turn out.
Yet there is something truly curious at play here. From the viewpoint of that most uncertain of comparative political sciences—democratization and democratic development—Thailand has consistently failed to follow the approved route of development theory. This theory assumes initial stability and growth under bureaucratic guidance by major generals or authoritarian single parties, followed by gradual liberalization as aging autocrats or their successors respond to pressure from an emerging urban middle class, concluding with the final epiphany of democratization and the polymorphous joys of pluralism and civil society. And the theory has its proof texts: Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile and arguably others.
But not Thailand. Since 1932, Thailand has oscillated inconclusively between military and civilian rule. Despite a brief alliance with the Japanese endeavor to create an East Asian co-prosperity sphere between 1942 and 1945, Thailand avoided postwar occupation by returning European colonial powers, who had threatened but never expunged Thai independence. Subsequently, Thai leaders established a bureaucratic authoritarian polity with close American ties in the course of the 1950s and 1960s, before semi-democratizing the state in the mid-1970s. The failure of this brief experiment saw a return to military rule in the 1980s under the rubric of “monarchy, nation and [Buddhist] religion.” Democratizing again in the late 1980s with continuing royal and military guidance, Thailand endured its penultimate military coup in 1992. What shocks most Western observers now is the fact that they thought this cycle had finally been broken and a stable democratic culture established. Evidently not.
Nonetheless, the September 19 coup seems anomalous even by much-exercised Thai standards. General Sonthi staged the coup not just to clear out corrupt democratic politicians, as in the past, but ostensibly to restore democratic rule and constitutional propriety. This rationale gained traction because Prime Minister Thaksin had managed to alienate nearly everyone in sight: The military, the revered symbol of Thai stability and unity; the aging King Bhumibol and his privy council; and the urban middle class, thanks to Thaksin’s creeping single-party rule and a level of personal greed whose sheer brazenness shocked even wizened observers of Thai politics. Nevertheless, the coup may ultimately be traced not to Thaksin’s unfortunate errors, but more broadly to Thailand’s uncertain political and economic adjustment to the post-Asian financial crisis world.
Although the financial crisis began in Thailand with an outbreak of bahtulism in July 1997, the subsequent, much-criticized IMF package had some salutary effects in reforming the cronyist and corrupt Thai business culture that had previously prevailed. Airports and subway systems got built as flows of foreign direct investment recovered, and the economy posted relatively strong growth: between 4 and 5 percent per annum since 2002. Of the limping Southeast Asian tiger economies, Thailand has been the brightest performer save for Singapore. Economic tension, however, has never been far from the surface. Development and investment have been largely confined to the capital and the coastal strip running from north to south, while disparities between the urban middle classes and the rural peasantry of the poor northeast and the Muslim south have become both greater and more apparent.
Political tension has also escalated, despite a constitution designed after 1997 to secure the rule of law and establish independent commissions capable of checking corruption and the arbitrary use of power. Yet constitutions have always proved a moveable feast in Thailand’s coup-driven politics, ever malleable to the demands of powerful business, military and bureaucratic interests. The 1997 constitution was the 18th since 1932. Under this “democratic charter”, Thaksin, Thailand’s biggest media conglomerate player, turned his Thai Rak Thai Party into a powerful engine of corporatist control, consolidating power through three electoral victories between 2001 and 2006. Through the classic Thai combination of money politics, paternalism and largesse—especially to the poor northeast—Thailand was developing along the technocratically guided lines of single-party rule favored by its most successful ASEAN neighbors, Malaysia and Singapore. Indeed, growing business ties between Singapore and Thailand offered the most plausible basis for integrating the disparate and flailing economies of Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s regional community rhetoric notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, increasing government control of the media—coupled to the dubious, but technically legal, tax-free sale of a controlling stake in Thaksin’s Shin Corp. to the Singapore government’s Temasek holdings for $1.9 billion in January 2006—amplified tensions between Thaksin and Bangkok’s increasingly demonstrative urban middle-class liberals. These tensions culminated in a snap election in April, which the opposition, somewhat problematically, boycotted. Winning the election thus did little to enhance Thaksin’s credibility or to relieve the tension. Under pressure from the King and his privy council, civil society groups and the army, Thaksin agreed to new elections to be held in October (now indefinitely postponed). In the interim he remained, until the September coup, as caretaker prime minister.
The coup, then, was a consequence of a short-lived alliance between pro-democracy groups, the Bangkok elites and those around the King who exercise a patrimonial influence over the Bangkok masses. (The latter display their loyalty by wearing yellow sweatshirts to work each Monday, yellow being the monarchical color.) Whilst the privy council and the military had become increasingly concerned with law and order, particularly Thaksin’s inept handling of the separatist Pattani Muslim insurgency in the south, Bangkok’s middle class sought greater freedom of expression and government accountability.
Given its heterogeneous composition, no one is surprised that the alliance is already falling apart. The recent decision of the NSC to appoint an interim prime minister in the shape of former General Surayud Chulanont to govern for a year under an interim constitution has magnified fractures in the post-Thaksin bloc. So has the NSC’s nomination of a 242-member legislative assembly, composed largely of former military officers, bureaucrats and academics, with a notable Bangkok bias. This has only increased tension between the NSC and Bangkok on the one hand, and the regions, students and civil society groups on the other—the latter increasingly feeling stuck between the rock that was Thaksin and the hard place of reinvented elite guidance.
Ultimately, then, the fall of Thaksin and his temporary exile in London leaves Thailand with an acute political dilemma. The middle classes want a swift return to constitutional rule, yet new elections will only reveal the continuing appeal of Thaksin and his party to the rural poor. Democracy and social-economic modernization are supposed to go together. But democracy in Thailand built a political voice for the least modern sectors of Thai society, stimulating its least democratic institutions—the military and the monarchy—to use undemocratic methods to protect what is most modern about the country. This is, to put it mildly, an awkward state of affairs. And this is why the King—in the 60th year of his rule—and his privy council of military gerontocrats need to craft an ingeniously Thai solution to restore stability and hold the fissiparous nation-state together. If they fail, not only Thais will feel the pain; so, too, will other Southeast Asians.
The Thai case thus represents not only an acute test for democratization theory, but also for a U.S. foreign policy that is increasingly premised on the need to support, promote and export democracy. After the coup, the Bush Administration moved rapidly to suspend military aid to Thailand, a state it had dubbed in 2003 “a major non-NATO ally.” The aid freeze, which included outright grants under the Foreign Military Financing Program, together with peacekeeping and counterterrorism support, will continue until “a democratically elected government takes office.” Given the terms of reference of Thailand’s nominated legislature this will take at least a year. A year is a long time to deprive a long-term partner of critical support in what Colin Powell rightly described as the second front in the war on terror.
There is a tragic irony at work here. Successive U.S. administrations have sedulously cultivated relations with the Thai military since the 1950s when Thailand became a key ally in the Korean War and a pillar both of SEATO and U.S. regional policy. During the Cold War, this relationship remained close irrespective of the character of the Thai political regime. Moreover, the Thai military, with U.S. support, has evolved reasonably successful strategies for combating the kind of guerrilla insurgencies that currently beset Coalition forces in Iraq, and that could potentially destabilize the land and sea border between Thailand’s three southern (and predominantly Muslim) provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, the Philippine province of Mindanao (home to the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group), and the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan, which affords covert support to the separatist Pattani United Liberation Front.
The Thai military successfully overcame the northeastern insurgents in the protracted war with Asian communism that was not fully resolved until the mid-1990s. More recently, in pre-Thaksin times, the military waged an effective battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim south, effectively marginalizing the separatist movements. Indeed, it was General Sonthi, himself a Muslim, and the 4th Army, responsible for containing the southern insurgency, that launched the September coup largely because of their growing alarm at Thaksin’s inept counterterror policies. These policies had produced a notable escalation of violence resulting in at least 1,700 deaths since 2003.
Given that the Thai/Malay borderland is a region in which Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian regional franchise, moves with relative impunity, the Thai military finds it bewildering that the United States would consider terminating joint U.S.-Thai counterterror operations, like Cobra Gold, in order to maintain its abstract commitment to a democratic ideal. And bewildering it is, for liberal democracy does not, in any case, translate straightforwardly into Southeast Asia. Thus, whether it is the relatively democratic but hugely corrupt Philippines, uncertainly democratizing Indonesia, or single-party dominant Singapore and Malaysia, elections, parties, voting and constitutional rules consistently serve non-democratic and broadly illiberal purposes.
Moreover, as the United States rebukes the coup leaders for their ostensible anti-democratic U-turn, Thailand’s regional neighbors—China, Japan and the ASEAN countries—look on askance, refusing to comment on Thailand’s internal affairs, and continuing to invest in its growing economy. Given that China increasingly seeks to extend its influence in Southeast Asia via ASEAN’s recently formed East Asian Community, high-handed U.S. diplomacy could accelerate Thailand’s embrace of closer economic and political ties with the emerging regional hegemon.
Ultimately, then, not only is Thailand a problematic and highly eccentric case for democratization theory, it seems to be furnishing disturbing evidence of a problematic abstract idealism harming U.S. national interests in Southeast Asia. Current U.S. policy seems at best a case of democratic fundamentalism trumping realistic pragmatism, at worst a case of cutting off the U.S. nose to spite the Thai face.