Thai politics: Lessons from past coups

Thai politics: Lessons from past coups
Thai soldiers take up a position on a bridge in Bangkok May 20, 2014.

Is the military coup that took place in Thailand on May 22 a necessary detour or a dangerous descent from democratic rule?

Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has pledged to restore elections and democracy within 15 months. Public expectations and international pressure on him to abide by this timetable can be expected to mount soon.

So far, this coup has been a departure from its predecessors because the ruling generals under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have been slow to set up an interim government and draft a new Constitution.

Past coups should offer a guide to the military junta about what to do and what not to do.

Power struggles

For decades after 1932, when constitutionalism replaced absolute monarchy, Thai politics was essentially about power struggles between civilian and military elites or between various cohorts and factions among top officers of the armed forces.

These elite struggles in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy rendered Thailand a "bureaucratic polity". Understanding elite squabbling and power manoeuvres was the key to understanding Thai politics.

The analysis became more complicated as democratisation and economic development made dramatic headway after the 1970s.

Bureaucratic struggles no longer determined all political outcomes. New urban business groups, provincial tycoons, civil society organisations and other players associated with Thailand's electoral politics and economic boom rose to prominence as democratisation broadened and became entrenched.

"Money politics" was the flip side of this wider political arena, as pathways to political power became a lucrative industry.

Elected politicians profited obscenely from electoral politics. As a result, corruption and democracy went hand in hand. This placed Thailand in a vicious cycle where it held elections and elected politicians only to end up with corrupt governments, recurrent coups and a series of Constitutions.

Worse, the coup leaders proved no more adept at governing and no less prone to graft than the elected politicians.

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