Thai politics: Lessons from past coups

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.

The coup-makers of 2014 are facing a familiar challenge. Seizing power is easier than knowing what to do with it and delivering results that can meet public expectations and stand up to resistance from opposition groups.

The NCPO's current "happiness promotion" campaigns that include regular army-sponsored concerts and nationwide "reconciliation centres" are reminiscent of propaganda battles for "hearts and minds" from the Cold War. These efforts, together with the early post-coup calm, could thus be yielding a false sense of security.

Hopefully, the Thai generals know they will have difficulty succeeding with a Cold War-style coup as social demands, expectations and socio-economic complexities are far greater now than in the past.

Learning from history

COUP leaders in the NCPO can nevertheless learn something from past coups, in particular those that took place in February 1991 and September 2006.

The 1991 coup was an elite struggle between two cohorts of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. General Suchinda Kraprayoon led Class Five, while Major-General Chamlong Srimuang and then-Colonel Manoon Roopkachorn headed Class Seven.

Famously known as the Young Turks, Class Seven controlled key battalions and rose to political power in the late 1970s. Its officers staged two failed coups in 1981 and 1985.

Thereafter, Class Five rose to power. When it intervened in February 1991 against government corruption and alleged parliamentary dictatorship, its unity, resolve and comprehensive lines of command were invincible.

The best thing that Gen Suchinda did after his coup was to appoint a technocratic government, headed by former diplomat Anand Panyarachun.

Unelected, the Anand administration proceeded to redo state concessions and institute structural reforms. The reforms yielded a myriad of benefits, including the metered taxi and the value-added tax that are now taken for granted.

The Anand government also ruffled feathers among Class Five's vested interests. Gen Suchinda was surrounded by military allies who were on the take with businessmen and cronies. But the Anand government did not just kowtow to the military. It actually challenged several top Suchinda-aligned generals. Having this technocratic government that was able to establish its integrity helped the coup-makers tackle probing questions from the international community.

The worst thing that Gen Suchinda did was to become prime minister himself after a questionable election in March 1992, one won by the military-aligned Samakkhi Tham Party.

After he went back on his word and took the premiership, he had to face the ire of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, led by his Class Seven nemesis, Maj-Gen Chamlong, who had become a democracy activist. The confrontation, which quickly turned violent, ended in May 1992 when a royal intervention obliged both sides to retreat.

Unfinished business

The coup in 2006 can be seen as a precursor to the one that took place last month. Indeed, the two can be seen as continuous, with the latest coup attempting to complete what the one in 2006 started - dismantling the electoral machine and various governments of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The 2006 coup-makers are widely perceived as ineffective because they ended up with the same Thaksin regime they had ousted, following the new Constitution and election in 2007.

The 2006 junta appointed General Surayud Chulanont, former army chief and privy councillor, as interim prime minister. Although his Cabinet appeared technocratic, it was ultimately unremarkable - its performance certainly could not match that seen in 1991-1992.

Despite its lacklustre showing, however, the Surayud government did one good thing: It stuck to the election timeframe.

The generals wanted to postpone the poll, but Gen Surayud went against their preference. Ruling generals are often tempted to delay handing power back to civilians for fear of retribution. Other vested interests that might have been built up over the coup period are also reluctant to allow a return to electoral politics. Thus, military governments can quickly become entrenched unless there is a clear and achievable timetable for transfer to civilian rule.

There have been different kinds of coups in Thailand - all of of them have disrupted and deterred democratic development. While it is better not to have a coup at all, the putsch on May 22 is something that Thais will have to live with.

The best approach for the coup-makers would be to delegate authority and performance, so policies can be implemented with integrity. They should also institute reforms that are seen as being fair to supporters and opponents alike, and keep vested interests at bay, while setting up and sticking to an election timetable.

The longer the coup-makers stay in power beyond their promised timeframe, the more challenges they are likely to face. Even if they stick to the 15-month pledge, they will be under growing pressure to perform better than elected politicians, and prove themselves more immune to corruption and graft. If they cannot do so, opposition will mount inexorably.

This article was first published on June 28, 2014.
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