Thai Coup Leaders’ Goal: Democracy on Their Terms

By Kay Johnson 17 June 2014

BANGKOK — From the day Thailand’s military coup leader seized power last month, he has promised unspecified reforms to restore stability and return to civilian rule and democracy. Yet, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has mentioned a striking obstacle to a “fully functional democracy”—elections.

According to the general, elections themselves have contributed to years of bitter political division and sometimes-violent street protests in Thailand. The military says intractable turmoil forced it to step in and topple a government for the second time in a decade.

“We need to solve many issues, from administration to the budget system to corruption,” Prayuth said in a recent radio address, “And even the starting point of democracy itself — the election.”

He continued, “Parliamentary dictatorship has to be removed. All these have caused conflict and unhappiness among Thai people.”

The statement was the strongest sign yet of what many analysts suspect is the true aim of the May 22 coup: limiting the impact of future elections in Thailand by relying more on appointed institutions or some other formula to limit majority rule.

The elected government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was weakened by six months of often massive protests and a succession of court rulings. Anti-government protesters blocking polling places and a subsequent court ruling scuttled February elections that Yingluck’s party had been widely expected to win.

Opponents of the ousted government are intent on removing the influence of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former prime minister who was himself ousted in a 2006 military coup. He has lived in self-imposed exile for years to avoid serving time for corruption charges he says were politically motivated, and it was a proposal to grant him amnesty that sparked the protests against his sister’s government.

Thaksin’s supporters have won every election since 2001, to the ire of many in Thailand who see him as a corrupt demagogue who abuses power and buys votes with populist promises.

The general didn’t explain what he meant by “parliamentary dictatorship,” nor has he elaborated on any specifics of reforms, but he made clear his opinion that the current electoral system was not working.

“They always say ‘reform,’ and what does ‘reform’ mean? At one level, it means get rid of Thaksin, his people and control his power base,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai scholar and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.

Support for Thaksin is strongest among poorer, rural Thais, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. His opponents are concentrated in Bangkok and the south, and are more likely to be wealthy or middle-class.

“In their view, people keep electing the wrong government. There is the core of it,” said Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian Politics at Britain’s University of Leeds, said of the anti-Thaksin forces who have repeatedly turned out into streets, taking over government buildings and once even occupying Thailand’s international airport for a week.

The most recent protesters, led by a former leader of the main opposition party, Suthep Thaugsuban, complained of “the tyranny of the parliamentary majority” and called for setting up an unelected council to usher in reforms. That roughly matches the plans of the junta — officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order — though for the moment it is promoting “happiness” and reconciliation as it cracks down on all forms of dissent.

It is unclear how coup supporters intend to reform Thai democracy, but Thongchai expects they will attempt to balance the popular vote of the electorate with the wisdom of what is known as the “khon dee,” or “virtuous people.”

“The most important matter to those who speak of traditional principles is rule by the virtuous,” Thongchai said. “Harmony and consensus is supposed to be the behavior of this rule by the virtuous because the ‘subjects’ are supposed to be grateful and loyal to the virtuous.”

Many opponents of the ousted government say they are the ones who stand for true democratic values, and that it is Thaksin’s brand of roughshod politics that goes against traditional Thai values of harmony and consensus, as columnist Tulsathit Taptim suggested in a recent article for the Nation newspaper.

“A ‘winner takes all’ democracy is too much for Thailand. It makes the losers sour and the triumphant side do whatever is necessary to keep the status quo,” Tulsathit wrote, adding, “This style of democracy is not totally democratic, at least over here.”

Or as Prayuth said in his speech June 6, “We understand that we are living in a democratic world, but is Thailand ready in terms of people, form and method?”

From 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, until 2001, when Thaksin was swept into office, the country was for the most part ruled either the army itself or, later, a select group of politicians who, while elected, were closely aligned with the country’s elite. Thaksin, a former policeman turned telecoms tycoon, upset the status quo in the eyes of many by amassing power for himself and refusing to give it up. He has remained powerful even from his current home in the United Arab Emirates; when his sister’s Pheu Thai Party rose to power in 2011, it employed the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts.”

Thaksin’s opponents, unable to beat him at the ballot box, have used other methods to counter him. After the last military coup in 2006, a new constitution was written that made the Senate partially appointed, though the House of Representatives remained a fully elected body. The Senate, in turn, appoints judges and leaders of other institutions who have largely been viewed as anti-Thaksin.

“In many ways, this coup is an extension of the 2006 coup, which many in the military see as a failure in that it didn’t go far enough in eliminating the Thaksin network,” said Michael Connors, a scholar in Malaysia.

Apparently, Thailand’s coup leaders still haven’t figured out how to restore at least the appearance of democracy while avoiding yet another election victory for Thaksin supporters, said Charles Keyes, a longtime scholar on Thailand at the University of Washington who has written a book on the rise of the populist movement in Thailand’s northeast.

“What the military has to do is to be seen as restoring democracy or else they are going to be a pariah. There has to be some movement in that direction and I think there will be movement in that direction,” Keyes said. “But whether it will be really restoration of democracy as most of the rest of the world would see it—well, that is the question.”

Another question: Will Thailand’s next version of democracy be accepted by the millions who keep voting for Thaksin-allied parties?

“Many things have changed in Thailand. Measures that may have been acceptable even a few years ago may well not be today,” said Michael Montesano, co-coordinator for the Thailand program at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “If the result is something that many Thais see as undemocratic, then that is a recipe for more instability.”