Thailand’s Fragile Democracy

The traditional elite clings to an outdated world view. But a military coup offers no solution.


29 May 2014

Thailand’s Fragile Democracy
​​Two days after the military coup in Thailand at least 13 bombs exploded, approximately simultaneously, in the city of Pattani. Three people, including a five-year-old child, were killed, and approximately 60 people injured. On Sunday there were clashes between anti-coup demonstrators and soldiers in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A symptomatic feature of Thailand’s enduring power struggle is a failure to address the country’s underlying political conflicts. With last week’s military coup, the Thai army has once again put the country in a precarious position. Thailand, which most Norwegians know as a peaceful and beautiful holiday paradise, is in a state of extreme political tension that carries a significant risk of long-lasting violent conflict.

​Democracy suspended indefinitely

Thailand’s constitution has now been annulled (with the exception of the paragraphs relating to the monarchy). A curfew has been imposed, there is strict media censorship, and dozens of politicians, activists, journalists, academics and intellectuals have been either arrested, forbidden to leave the country, or summoned to report to the junta. By these means, Bangkok’s traditional elite, which since November last year has been organising street protests and conspiring against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra – sister of the controversial Thaksin Shinawatra – has attained its long-awaited goal. Thailand’s fragile democracy has been put aside for an indefinite period. 

An outdated world view
The coup is a huge set-back for Thailand and an admission of failure by the traditional elite, not least the political opposition headed by the Democrat Party. Instead of taking on Thaksin by developing political alternatives, they have sabotaged the democratic process by abandoning parliament and boycotting new elections. The power struggle that has characterised Thailand since the middle of the 2000s is to a large extent about positioning in a time of political turbulance. But it is also about what type of society Thailand should become. And the traditional elite seems to cling to an outdated world view, where position and rank are more relevant than democratic legitimacy. The military coup is a desperate attempt to maintain a system that is past its due date.

A coup in slow motion
Although many Thais are no doubt happy to be rid of the Thaksin regime (which they perceive as corrupt) this time around, the means that have been employed are unacceptable for the majority of Thailand’s population. In the last six elections they have brought Thaksin and his allies to power by a significant margin of votes. That their votes have once again been annulled is provoking outrage. The power struggle was brought out into the open a long time ago and Thaksin’s supporters in northern and north-eastern Thailand are mobilising for a fight.

Accordingly this coup has proceeded in slow motion. Instead of forcibly removing Yingluck with immediate effect, the traditional elite has held back in order to avoid a major mobilisation by the red shirts. This elite is fully aware that the most extreme branches of the red-shirt movement are prepared to use violence in order to defend their elected leaders. The fear is that some parts of the country may end up in a situation verging on civil war. 

Lacking legitimacy
Ever since the political conflict in Thailand escalated in November last year, General Prayuth has repeatedly asserted that a military coup is no solution to the country’s problems ¬– a correct analysis. So what has made him change his mind? No doubt the army sees itself as a superior moral force charged with a special duty to preserve what it perceives to be the Thai nation. But the army is not – contrary to the claims advanced from various sides – a neutral party that is intervening to create peace and order. The army is a central player in the power struggle and is not willing to let go of its privileges. The problem is that its old strategy of military coups and bypassing democratic processes no longer enjoys popular legitimacy. 

The risk of more violence
When the bombs exploded in Pattani on Saturday evening, this was not a direct reaction to the coup. The Pattani region in the far south of Thailand has been in conflict for over a century with the Thai state, which annexed this Malay-Muslim region in 1909. Central to the conflict are the right of self-determination and religious and cultural freedom. The region is treated more as a colony than as a part of the Thai nation and a solution to the conflict will require a process of political negotiation and compromise. Similarly many people in rural and poverty-stricken northern and north-eastern Thailand feel marginalised and exploited by the elite in Bangkok. These people constitute the electoral support for Thaksin and his allies. But there is little evidence to suggest that General Prayuth and the junta will address the growing discontent among the rural population.

The power struggle between the Thaksin faction and the traditional elite completely overshadows Thailand’s underlying structural conflicts. The more navel-gazing that characterises the power struggle in Bangkok, the greater the frustration and desperation that will build up within outlying areas of the country. This coup is indeed another wedge driven into the crack that is threatening to break the nation apart.

Author: Marte Nilsen, senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

This text was first published in Norwegian 28 May 2014 at NRK/​ 

More op eds on the topic (in Norwegian):

Photo​ (c) Takeaway/Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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