Southeast Asia has long been part of the developing ‘Third World’, contested by the superpowers particularly during the Cold War. So isn’t Thailand’s latest coup maker, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, just another military dictator like those of years gone by? Not so fast.
We should beware of drawing too many parallels between Thailand’s latest coup and that of its predecessors. The domestic, political and geo-strategic circumstances are different and the potential repercussions from punishing the Thais by shunning them are significant.
Thailand is the archetypal coup-prone country with eighteen or so coup attempts since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Bangkok in 1932 – itself a product of a military coup. First, previous coups have tended to be bloody affairs. Prayuth’s coup was bloodless and while dozens have been temporarily detained and accusations of abuse have circulated, no one appears to have disappeared since the coup at the hands of the Thai military.
Previous coup makers often took over with no apparent intention of returning power to the people through the ballot box. In contrast, Prayuth has declared, from the outset that he is intent on reforming pivotal institutions of state and returning the country to the polls in 2015. His actions to date are consistent with his declared intentions, launching plans to instigate some constitutional reforms – something both sides of Thai politics recognise as necessary – albeit with different ideas of how to do so.
Previous coups have been staged when other institutions of state were still functioning. Prayuth acted when the instruments of state had mostly seized up. By 20 May 2014 Thailand’s democratic institutions had ground to a dysfunctional halt. Neither side of politics was prepared to compromise at all, it seems, and both sides were prepared to act extra-constitutionally to get their way.
In addition, over 30 people had been killed during more than six months of political street protests which had nearly paralysed the capital, Bangkok. This period of destabilizing demonstrations, and continued political turmoil also had negative effects on the country’s economy – affecting all segments of the population and industry.
Thailand’s elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had been dismissed from office by a partisan legal system over a legal technicality and she was replaced by an ‘acting interim prime minister’ – the very nature of that title pointed to the fragility of the arrangements.
But even Yingluck was demonstrably behaving as a figurehead for her fugitive brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, having sought to ram through a blanket pardon. This would have enabled Thaksin return to Thailand and avoid facing a jail sentence – one imposed by resentful elites, admittedly, which his supporters saw as unjust. Yet Thaksin remains a polarising figure and few genuinely question that Thaksin’s actions were brazen and corrupt.
Thais widely acknowledged that Thaksin took a high-handed approach to his executive powers. He oversaw the extra-judicial killings of hundreds if not thousands of people on the premise of their being involved in the illegal drug trade. It was on his watch that the insurgency on Thailand’s deep south erupted. Most recognise Thaksin was hardly the paragon of virtue his defendants would have us believe. He was masterful at manipulating the organs of state to amass wealth to the point of excess.
With Yingluck’s removal, the largely appointed Senate decided in a high-handed manner to appoint an alternative prime minister without consulting Yingluck’s side of politics. Had that appointment proceeded who knows how much the country would have been torn with dissension, but pundits reckon the prospects were dire. Prayuth, knowing of the distribution of weapons and discovery of arms caches, acted pre-emptively to avoid a descent into far greater bloodshed than had already been witnessed.
In the meantime, his critics point out his monopoly of power is reminiscent of the approach taken by Thaksin a decade ago. They dismiss Prayuth’s efforts on the premise that he is acting to shore up the power of the elites. After all, he is head of one of the key institutions of state associated with the elites.
But such criticism suggests that the wishes of the elites can be magically and painlessly swept away. Such thinking reflects a superficial understanding of the internal political and cultural dynamics at work in Thailand today.
For Thai society to avoid even greater bloodshed than has been witnessed to date then some kind of accommodation must be reached between the elites and their middle-class supporters in Bangko (who are trenchantly opposed to the return of the Shinawatra clan) and those who tend to reside in Thailand’s north and north-east (who are supporters of or at least sympathetic to the Shinawatra’s cause). This need for an accommodation is a principal concern which Prayuth seized power to try to bring about.
Perhaps equally significant was the perceived need to prevent the Shinawatra clan from overseeing any fin-de-siecle royal succession. Thaksin simply was not to be trusted with such weighty responsibility.
To people accustomed to Western style democracy his actions were unconscionable, but in Thailand, where coups have been a regular feature on the political landscape, the tolerance for such extra-constitutional action is high. In fact it has almost come to be expected – by the elites, by the judiciary, by many in the business community and across large parts of society.
There is in effect a protocol whereby the military exercises the greatest caution to avoid bloodshed. In the past the promises of a return to democracy have sounded hollow and have often lacked a concrete plan to do so.
However, the last time there was a coup, in 2006, the generals promised and delivered a return to the ballot box. But they did so without having resolved the issues which had generated such a schism in the Thai body politic.
This time, Prayuth is determined to be more thorough and insistent on generating institutional and economic reform to root out some of the corruption and nepotism, promoted by previous administrations.
Critics are right to say they are concerned that Prayuth’s plans look like they are simply replacing Thaksin’s cronies with military ones. Prayuth has to deliver reforms and he has promised to do so by October next year. Whether he does so or not is a matter of considerable conjecture.
It is, however, relevant that the economic divisions across Thailand have existed for much of the country’s history, and cannot be reversed in a day, a week, or even a year. Rather, addressing these socio-economic disparities requires careful and inclusive analysis and development of a realistic ‘roadmap’ for implementation. This strategic change process is one of the first priorities set by Prayuth. By mid-June, and on a consultative basis, he created and communicated a ‘3-Stage Roadmap’ for change, along with a timeframe for implementation.
In the meantime outsiders still gaze and wonder at how such a thriving country like Thailand could have descended into a state of near chaos and political paralysis that provided the rationale for the military’s re-intervention.
Part of the difficulty in understanding Thailand’s opaque political machinations and behaviours is a consequence of the Thai people’s mindset and cultural outlook, of the way they think and believe, and the way that those beliefs shape how they act.
One area of real difference between Western countries and Thailand is that Western countries are infused with Judaeo-Christian derived ideas filtered through modern and post-modern lenses. From this viewpoint, democracy is not just a given it is sacrosanct. Thailand, in contrast, is a Theravada Buddhist country that, unlike its other Theravada Buddhist neighbours (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia), was never colonised by the West.
While Thais find much of the trappings of the West attractive, their mindset remains steeped in a world-view that to agnostic and liberal-minded Westerners appears to be quaint and exotic but anachronistic. This is not how Thais see it.
In Thailand karma, hierarchy, and one’s place in the cosmic order are not out-dated, esoteric or superficial concepts. They are inculcated widely from an early age. They are real and visible on almost every street corner, in every home, and in every school across the nation; most notably with temples, Buddha images, spirit houses and alms-seeking monks, with monkhood itself a widely accepted rite of passage. Even the most Westernised of Thais accept this to a large extent.
In Thailand, where reincarnation is taken for granted, the notion of only living once is simply absurd. It follows therefore, that your karma follows you from life to life and that the elites have reached a high status for good reason.
The rural disadvantaged, so the reasoning goes, need to understand their place and not upset the established order. Thaksin and his followers tapped into an impulse that threatened that order. The cultural predisposition in Thailand is to see the issue of justice through different lenses to those used by people in the West
Having said that, Prayuth recognises that you can’t take all of this for granted. He now heads an authoritarian regime, ruling with absolute power. But he must know that culture takes you only so far and in the connected 21st century economic aspirations can sometimes trump culture.
Abrogating a constitution has a corrosive effect on economics and politics: Economic stability and investor confidence can be shaken by such events, although in this instance the return of stability has been warmly welcomed by the business community. Political stability could hardly have been less certain when Prayuth seized power, yet the act of abrogating a constitution undermines the prospect of being able to uphold subsequent constitutions. After all, what makes one royally-endorsed constitution less susceptible than the previous royally-endorsed constitution?
Another concern is the current approach toward communication of negative views about this administration. There is justifiable discomfort among the media and other ‘alternate’ spokespeople that various forms of censorship are curtailing open dissemination of government criticism and the like.
Administration spokespeople are well aware of this issue and are considering how to remedy this important concern. These conundrums are not easily solved within the Thai context.
Yet Prayuth is a man who appears intent on instigating serious reform. Within two months of seizing power he introduced an interim constitution and appointed a National Legislative Assembly.
A National Reform Council is being established as well as yet another constitution-drafting committee. But for his reforms to be consolidated he will need the legitimacy which can only come from open elections.
His popularity has waxed in part because after six months of policy paralysis during anti-government street protests, the coup had to be a relief.
The provisional arrangements instigated under Prayuth have been established with the declared purpose of fixing some of the instruments of state that have become unworkable – notably the justice system, including the police, and the parliament. Few would argue that the level of dysfunction needed to be addressed.
The question now is whether Prayuth’s reforms will bolster truly democratic principles or simply support the wishes of the elites who were determined to be rid of the Shinawatra legacy.
Thailand’s constitution is scheduled to be written prior to elections anticipated in October 2015. It is likely that in the bicameral political model employed – one that echoes the Westminster constitutional-monarchy model familiar to countries of the former British Empire – the senate will be largely an appointed body.
Before many in the West react in horror at this apparent anti-democratic ‘outrage’ with its echoes across the border in Myanmar, it would be wise to reflect on the experience of two paragons of democratic virtue – Britain and Canada – both of which retain appointed upper houses of parliament. Their experience should provide a salutary caution against patronisingly and disdainfully dismissing suggestions for a partially appointed legislature.
As Prayuth seeks to grapple with conflicting political pressures, we should remember that he has promised a return to democracy within 16 months of taking power – unlike the experience in other places like Fiji, for that matter, where Admiral Frank Bainimarama finally appears intent to hold elections after having been in power since he staged his own military coup in Fiji in 2006.
As we reflect on the potential levers of international power to influence the course of such events, we should remember how limited has been the ability of external actors to influence domestic outcomes in Fiji. There, China’s influence was courted by Bainimarama in part as a counterweight to the diplomatic and economic estrangement Fiji has experienced.
There are salutary lessons from this for policy determinations affecting engagement in a South East Asian country like Thailand.
In reflecting on the best way to engage Thailand, policy makers should remember that Thailand has been a good friend of Australia and others. It is a pivotal state in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
For Australia, Thailand was the first ASEAN country to offer to assist during the East Timor crisis in 1999.
For the United States, Thailand remains a longstanding treaty ally, providing ongoing access to significant air bases and ports of strategic significance.
We should be mindful of how much of a friend Thailand has been and should think twice about the geo-strategic implications of seeking to punish Thailand for its efforts to resolve its intractable and almost unfathomable political challenges.
Outsiders should by all means seek to continue to encourage a return to democracy. But rule of law is an important part of effective governance and that has been sadly lacking in recent years in Thai politics.
It is an axiom that democracy without effective rule of law is mob rule and the precarious situation in Bangkok prior to the current intervention was fast approaching this condition.
Prayuth knows his legitimacy and popularity rest largely on the promise of a return to order and to democracy and constitutional rule. He also knows that if he mishandles this transition period, then the political crisis he stepped in to resolve may well get worse.
Weighing on his mind is his loyalty to the monarchy at a time when the King is frail and unable to exercise the influence he once wielded on the national stage. Yet there is much at stake. A successful royal transition in due course will be uppermost in Prayuth’s mind as well.
As we consider how to approach Prayuth and his administration to encourage him down the path of democratic reform, we should do so with caution and understanding. Patronising dismissal of the domestic complexities will undermine any constructive leverage Australian (and other countries’) policy makers may seek to exert.
In a place like Thailand, megaphone diplomacy can have the opposite to the intended effect. Rather than loudly condemning and castigating, it is more effective to respectfully and discretely encourage the Thai authorities to honour their commitment.
This should be done with an understanding that Thailand’s cultural and political dynamics cannot be read effectively through Western lenses alone.
Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, College of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University. He was selected in 2014 to receive a Minerva Research Initiative grant to undertake a study on Thailand’s military, the USA and China. He tweets at @JohnBlaxland1