Thailand’s invitation to violence

Thailand’s military coup is an invitation to violence.

When army supremo General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power last Thursday he demonstrated to the Thai people that might is right. Talk of a non-violent coup is nonsense. Prayuth succeeded because he could mobilise overwhelming force and issue a compelling threat of violence to anyone who opposed him.

Thailand, and the world, is now waiting to see how the red-shirt supporters of the deposed government will react.

Their patience must be exhausted.

Many supporters of Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – who was overthrown in the last coup in 2006 – must be wondering if the electoral process can ever deliver them the outcome they desire.

Since 2001 they have gone to the polls, in a peaceful and orderly manner, six times: 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011 and, most recently, in February this year. Every time they have elected Thaksin or one of his political allies. Thaksin’s majority in 2005 was the strongest in the modern history of Thailand. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, achieved the second largest majority in the election of 2011.

Thailand’s electoral system certainly has its faults but there is no credible commentator who would argue that these pro-Thaksin electoral victories did not represent the genuine will of the people.

These electoral judgements have been consistently subverted by the interventions of the courts, royalist yellow-shirt protesters and the military.

In the wake of last Thursday’s coup, hardliners among the red shirts will now be arguing, on good evidence, that electoral democracy in Thailand is a dead end. Red-shirt radicals will welcome the opportunity the military has provided for a show of force. Unfortunately, it is an opportunity that some will seize.

Thailand has arrived at this depressing juncture due to the failures of two of its central institutions.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is certainly widely respected throughout Thailand for his good works and personal sacrifice, but Thailand’s democratic failure is the most striking legacy of his long reign.

For decades, anti-democratic forces in Thailand have been able to use the image of a virtuous monarch to undermine the credibility of elected politicians. A long series of military coups have been staged in the name of the king, in order to protect the country from the depredations of corrupt politicians. Bhumibol has never used his pre-eminent national stature to challenge the use of military force to overthrow an elected government.

He has consistently permitted anti-democratic acts to be staged in his name.

Since General Prayuth’s seizure of power last Thursday there has not been one word from the palace about the importance of protecting Thailand’s democratic system. In the king’s much anticipated birthday speech, which brought about a temporary truce in political conflict last December, there was plenty of talk of the need for national unity but one very important and potentially influential word was missing: democracy.

In fact, in the last few months the most active royal presence in Thailand’s political scene has been one of the king’s daughters who has openly supported protesters calling for the overthrow of an elected government.

What Thailand desperately needs now is not unity but strong institutions that can peacefully manage disagreement. Thailand’s over-investment in the monarchy as a symbol of national unity means that institutions that can constructively manage conflict have never been able to flourish.

The second core institutional failure that Thailand now confronts is the weakness of its opposition. This may seem like a strange claim to make given that opposition forces have succeeded in precipitating the overthrow of the government. But this outcome is a result of opposition weakness, not strength.

Thailand’s main opposition party, the Democrat Party, has not been able to form government as a result of an election in almost a quarter of a century. Since 2001 they have been comprehensively outperformed by the electoral appeal of Thaksin’s populist agenda for modernisation, economic growth and grass-roots development.

Demoralised by their repeated failures the Democrats have now given up on the democratic process. They have shied away from party reform, given up on developing new policy platforms that could have broader electoral appeal and baulked at the long-term effort required to match Thaksin’s grass-roots mobilisation.

Instead, a weak and ineffectual Democrat Party has set out on a mission of democratic destruction. They boycotted the election held earlier this year because they knew they could not match Yingluck’s electoral appeal. They did the same in 2006, unwilling to take on Thaksin at the ballot box. In both cases, the Democrat’s electoral sabotage set the stage for the military to stage a coup shortly afterwards.

It is hard to see how Thailand can make its way out of this political mess. With a very real risk of violent confrontation with red-shirt forces, General Prayuth is keen to establish his authoritarian credentials. He has already detained political leaders, arrested anti-coup protestors and summoned critics to army headquarters. There is no talk of a new election and, with Thaksin still electorally dominant, a return to democracy is likely to be a long way off.

Ultimately the coup will achieve nothing, as it did in 2006. Heavy handed military action may succeed in driving Thaksin and his allies out of politics once and for all. But it won’t be able to reverse the social and economic transformations that have built the base of Thaksin’s political support.

A meaningful transition to political stability will require a re-appraisal of the central role of the monarchy, a new culture of respect for electoral and parliamentary institutions, and the development of a modern opposition party that can provide the Thai electorate with real policy alternatives.

That is an agenda that military men are incapable of pursuing.