By: Pithaya Pookaman

There have been 18 military coups d’etat in Thailand, of which 12 were successful, since 1932 when Phraya Pahol Polpayuhasena, leader of the People’s Party, led a group of military and police officers and civilians to proclaim the establishment of democracy in Thailand.

The latest, of course, took place in 2014 with the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who presently holds a dual position as junta leader and prime minister.  Although Thailand ranks fourth in the world in the number of coups, trailing Sudan with 31, followed by Iraq and Bolivia, military coups are deeply ingrained in the Thai psyche and tolerated by some Thais, particularly the elite and urban middle class.

What sets the Thai coups apart from the coups in other countries is their variety, sophistry and creativity. In what is considered a variation to the classic military coups, we have had “silent coups” in which street mobs were employed by opposition parties with the connivance of the military in lieu of raw military force, and ”self-inflicted coups” perpetrated by the military government in power to rid itself of democratic and dissenting elements within the government apparatus. 

New Model

However, what is at work at the moment is a new model, a “permanent coup” designed to span more than 20 years, elections or no elections.  In March, the junta laid out a plan under which any future civilian government would be “legally bound” to follow its two-decade “masterplan that would outline six “strategic areas including security, competitiveness enhancement, human resource development, social equality, green growth and rebalancing and public-sector development.  Not unnaturally for this version of the junta, “national security” is the key focus.

The present junta considers the 2006 military coup which unseated the popular government of Thaksin Shinawatra to be a “wasted coup” because the then-junta leader allowed a general election to take place without instituting adequate safeguards to prevent the recurrence of a government committed to a genuine democratic process, an anathema to the military-cum-elite establishment.  With such hindsight, the present junta has devoted more time to crafting a constitution to guarantee the continuance of the junta’s power after the election, to make sure it won’t happen again.

The new constitution contains many novel but undemocratic features such as wholly appointed senators, an unelected prime minister, and a bizarre and complicated proportional system designed to limit the power of the politicians, weaken established political parties and marginalize the power of the people. The new charter also violates the principle of checks and balances by ceding disproportionate power to the judicial branch and so-called independent organs that actually are under the control of the junta. 

Democracy’s Fate Sealed

On July 6, the fate of democracy was finally sealed with the rubber-stamp approval by the junta-appointed national legislative assembly that functions as the parliament by a vote of 179 to 0. The deliberation lasted only an hour before the vote was called, an exceptionally amazing feat which should an envy of the US lawmakers in Congress. 

Once it receives the expected royal endorsement, a drafting panel will prepare a master plan for six strategic areas encompassing national security, good governance, as well as economic and social matters.  When in force, all government agencies and public organizations must comply with the 20-year master plan, including budget allocation. Compliance will be monitored by the national strategy committee. 

If the government is guilty of what the military considers to be malfeasance, the prime minister and concerned cabinet members can face suspension from public office or expulsion. In addition, the junta-appointed senators will also monitor the compliance.  Although the 20-year strategy is to be reviewed every five years, any changes to the strategy will be difficult and are subjected to prior parliamentary review.

Since the junta’s 20-year vision has the force of law, it may be construed as an instrument of a “silent coup” which enables the military to force the duly elected civilian government to carry out the policy previously dictated by the junta under the threat of expulsion without resorting to deploying the tanks.  In short, it is an instrument to legally bring down a government without resorting to a classic military coup as has been the case so many times over the past eight-plus decades.

In a true democratic system, the political parties present a political platform to the people during electoral campaigns.  When an electoral victory is achieved based on sound campaign policy, the winning party will form a government to deliver on its campaign promises.

Electoral Platform Binned

However, under the junta’s 20-year strategy, the government’s electoral platform can be thrown into a garbage can and the government must dutifully carry out the junta’s 20-year plan or face legal consequences. 

This plan is ingeniously conceived to project the junta’s policy well into the next five government tenures. It immortalizes the present military junta whose body will cease to exist after the election, but its spirit will still live on. Hence, the hope that the military will fade away after the election is only a pipe dream. 

Sadly for the country, the 20-year plan is but another toxic fruit of a poisoned tree planted by the coup plotters.  In an ever-changing world, it would become an outdated commodity as it would deep-freeze the country for at least two decades. The globalized world necessitates a degree of flexibility and adaptability in order to be competitive.  To change the course set by the junta by any future government or political movement would be tantamount to challenging the military dominance resulting in major political and social upheavals that could entail violence and loss of lives.

Implacable Resistance to Democracy

For the past 86 years since the inception of democracy in Thailand, the military and the elite establishment have resisted democracy. They have created a hostile environment to inhibit the development of the democratic process. To them, democracy must not be allowed to succeed.  This is reminiscent of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution that swept across China from 1966 to 1976, unleashing destruction and misery upon the Chinese population. 

While China under Chairman Mao Zedong wanted to revive the spirit of the communist revolution to root out bourgeois elements, the military-cum-elite establishment in Thailand wants to inculcate medieval Thai traditional values and rid the country of” corrupt politicians” engendered by the democratic process, which it views as a dangerous foreign import.  While the Red Guards were mobilized as the tool to cleanse the society of “imperialist” influence, the Thai semi-fascist mobs were used to destabilize democratically elected governments by seizing international airports, ransacking government offices, terrorizing the people, and shutting down the capitol city. 

Ten years before the military coup to oust the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand also underwent a period of political liberalization and democratization made possible by 1997 constitution which is considered the most democratic charter to date. 

Prosperity for the Peasantry

Relative prosperity and economic progress during the Thaksin administration – although it, like most Thai governments, was hardly corruption-free (but matched and exceeded considerably by the junta’s own reputation for corruption), during this period were underpinned by the phrase “edible democracy” which went to prove that democracy was not just a lofty principle but that it actually worked for the Thai people. The elitists feared that their power was being eroded by the empowerment of the mass.  Moreover, Thaksin’s effort to “drain the swamp” as part of the country’s structural reform did not sit well with the elitists.

In one swift stroke, the military coups of 2006 and 2014 reversed the democratic trend and put the country back on a semi-fascist track.  The constitution of 2017 and the junta’s 20-year strategy guarantee that the country must never again deviate from the path. With the departure of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, the elitists and the Thai urban middle class are caught in an epidemic of “Thaksin Derangement Syndrome” as the self-exiled former prime minister still commands considerable admiration from the Thai populace and, therefore, constitutes a threat to the elite establishment.

It is therefore expected that, in a free and fair election, Thaksin’s surrogate party, the Pheu Thai Party, would win a plurality vote, if not a majority vote.  Pheu Thai win would put the junta’s 20-year strategy in jeopardy and would present a threat to the military’s stranglehold on power.  The military coup of 2014 will not be consummated until the threat of Thaksin’s political movement is permanently removed.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador living in Bangkok and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel