Why democracy struggles

Earlier in the year I published an academic paper where I tried, in some 7,000 words, to get to grips with the history of coups in Thailand. Today, with tension still rising in Bangkok, and no easy solution in this fractious political environment, I thought it worth drawing attention to some of that analysis. I wouldn’t pretend it’s the final word on what is a vast and unruly topic, but I think it’s useful to put coups (and speculation about coups) in a broader historical and cultural context.

The paper is “Why democracy struggles: Thailand’s elite coup culture“, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 2013, vol. 67, no. 3, pp. 281-296.

For today, some extracts probably help to put things in context. The piece begins by noting that:

Analysing the historical context of Thailand’s elite coup culture is complicated by the absence of clear linear patterns that cause changes in national government. As Clark D. Neher points out, cases of political succession in Thailand do not appear to be responses to economic downturns or specific threats to the nation’s security. Instead, Neher (1992, 585) argues, a change in Thai government is best viewed as ‘an unpatterned, ad hoc event dependent on changing allegiances and power advantages held by various elite groups, such as politicians, bureaucrats, capitalist business leaders, and military officers’. Understandably, this lack of any coherent pattern has frustrated generations of scholars hoping to understand the nature of coup politics in Thailand. Instead, however, of seeking to determine consistency in the practice of military interventionism, I propose an advancement of Neher’s suggestion that ‘the random nature of the succession changes has made it impossible to predict when coups will take place and with what results’ (ibid.). Writing in the immediate aftermath of the February 23, 1991 coup, he suggests that ‘not only did Thai and Western scholars fail to predict the military coupтАЙ…тАЙbut they had asserted the conventional wisdom that coups were an anachronistic part of the nation’s past, no longer pertinent to the “new” democratic kingdom’ (ibid.). The cultural bases for questioning this supposed anachronism, especially at an elite level, motivate this article’s consideration of coups over time. Thailand’s persistent, if sporadic, military interventionism helps to show that even ‘unpatterned, ad hoc event[s]’ are fused to cultural practices and expectations that, while they do shift over time, offer a foundation for rigorous and historically grounded analysis (Charnvit 2004).


More recent coups…have been justified in the defence of democracy. On February 23, 1991, the military’s National Peace Keeping Council ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven. As Ananya (1992, 313) writes: ‘It was Thailand’s eighteenth coup since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, and it was preceded by one of the rounds of coup rumours that periodically circulate in Bangkok’. Suchit notes that “The coup, which ended a decade-long parliamentary democracy, came as a surprise to most politicians, political observers, and academiciansтАЙ…тАЙThe growing strength of parliamentary democracy in the past decade had convinced a number of people that Thai politics had reached a level of sophistication that made a coup a thing of the past” (Suchit 1992, 131). One official account suggested that ‘the objective [was] strengthening democratic processes through a revised constitution’, and that ‘[t]he takeover of administration was peaceful and widely endorsed by the people and the media’ (Office of the Prime Minister 1991, 139).

I speculate that since the September 2006 coup:

…Thailand may struggle to cultivate an elite political culture where coups would be unacceptable. At this stage, coups clearly still play a major role in Thai mainstream politics. Episodic redemocratisation has not led to the final consolidation of a democratic system, and wariness about electoral outcomes remains very strong, especially among those with the political and materiel capabilities to launch coups. It is, after all, senior military leaders, and specifically the top army generals, who need to be convinced that direct political interventions do not serve their purposes. Each year, Thailand tends to experience at least one period of frenzied coup speculation. In a pattern that goes back many decades, the standard response sees military officers publicise their denials, which are choreographed to leave sceptical minds guessing.

The paper concludes with the suggestion that:

Post-coup grumbles have, in the years since 2006, been replaced by much deeper anxieties about the future of the Thai polity once King Bhumibol is no longer on the throne. The prevailing coup culture is largely a product of his reign and the deliberate symbiosis that has drawn military leaders into his circle. It is unclear whether any future monarch could so consistently rely on the military to support royal interests alongside its own. The final phase of King Bhumibol’s reign has thus led some Thais to ask uncomfortable questions about the roles of the palace and the military in politics. In the uncertain period ahead, the long history of coups will continue to shape Thailand’s political culture and the behaviour of its elite actors. At moments when democratic institutions are put under pressure, there is a chance that new compromises could emerge, and respect for electoral mandates might follow. The alternative is that the Thai military, and perhaps the palace, may never be prepared to accept any diminished status. The risk of smaller budgets, political marginalisation and less prestige could prove too much to bear. That could mean continued justification for occasional coups–and that new generations will become acculturated to military interventionism in a system where elite decision-makers have only haphazardly embraced the democratic ideal.

Given the uncertain character of recent street-level politics, the looming celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on 5 December, and the overall rambunctiousness of Thai political division, I guess a coup couldn’t be ruled out right now.

Perhaps the generals have, however, determined that running the country isn’t their comparative advantage after the tortuous experience from September 2006 to December 2007? Perhaps not? And perhaps somebody can conjure another mechanism for unseating the Yingluck Shinawatra government and replacing it with something else? A conventional coup needs the army. But I suppose there are plenty of other ways that the current government might end.

It still feels like we’ve seen this before. But is it 2010? 2008? 2006? or 1973? …or even 1932? Your thoughts, as ever, are very welcome here.