On Saturday, Thailand will commemorate the third anniversary of the Sept. 19, 2006 military coup that ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains a fugitive after being sentenced to two years imprisonment for conflicts of interest. It appears likely to be commemorated with protest.
Members of Thaksin’s Red Shirt faction, blessed by the fugitive former premier, have planned a massive demonstration in Bangkok with the government, in response, invoking the Internal Security Act for the period covering the anniversary to attempt to prevent violence. The sobering events in Pattaya in April, when a mob of Red Shirts forced the cancellation of an Asean Summit by storming the venue where it was being held, and in Bangkok, where street battles between anti-government protesters and troops left two dead and 123 hurt, still haunt the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Three years on, what has Thailand learned from its political stalemate? First, that democracy is hard to attain, especially once it has been dismantled. Once you have it, it is even more difficult to hold without interference from the military or extra-constitutional actors. Despite Abhisit’s recent success in calming down the country, peace remains tenuous.
While the Red Shirts and the pro-government Yellow Shirt factions continue to spar, democratic institutions remain intensely weak. The state, either under the backing of Thaksin or the royalists who favor the current status quo, has manipulated democrat institutions for its own political purposes. This explains why an ostensibly democratic government allows the weakness of certain state mechanisms to persist.
Consciously or otherwise, the state has let itself be manipulated by non-democratic entities and some non-state actors, while a politicized judiciary serves the aims of those in power. This condition, severely impeding democratization, has been sustained since the coup of 2006.
Second, during the past three years, the civil-military relationship has hit an all-time low. The Thai military, often proclaiming itself the defender of democracy, refuses to leave the political scene, using old and new excuses to remain in the political limelight, such as to safeguard the well-being of the monarchy, cleanse the dirt in Thai politics and remove bad elements in society — code for Thaksin and his associates.
The decades-old inability of successive governments to construct a legitimate political system and to dominate their governing bodies has invited the military to intrude into the political domain. The rise of political violence caused by competing groups of the elite has effectively legitimized the use of state coercion, which leads to a dramatic increase in the political power and influence of the military.
At the crux of the civil-military conflict lies the struggle for power. As Thaksin won two landslide elections in 2001 and 2005, his triumph seemed to signal the supremacy of civilian control. Many immediately anticipated a decrease in the militarization of power. They were wrong. The military has never really departed from politics; it has merely gone into hibernation.
The unfinished nation-building process also helps prolong the military’s political role. The fact that Thaksin attempted to reconfigure the political landscape, which was interpreted by his opponents as an unacceptable challenge, simply justified the political role of the military. After the communists were uprooted in the 1970s and 1980s, the military needed a new enemy to maintain its grip of political power. Thaksin became that new face of the otherness.
Lastly, the third anniversary of the military coup points to a new development. The monarchy has been confronted with severe domestic threats to its very existence. Pro-Thaksin factions have called for the abolition of a royally guided democracy, which some critics say implies a call for a republic.
As a result, the past three years have witnessed increasingly heated debate about the monarchy. This has led to the resurgence of a harsher lèse-majesté law against those who were perceived to be defaming the institution, with sentences being handed out well out of proportion to the offence – take for example Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for speaking against the monarchy. Others have been ordered to jail for simply not standing during the king’s anthem.
Ironically, even the military, a self-proclaimed protector of the monarchy, has occasionally exploited the royal institution. Almost all factions seek to take advantage of an ageing and increasingly infirm monarch who, to this day, is viewed by many as the backbone of the nation’s stability. With this in mind, the royal succession, a much anticipated and somewhat disquieting issue, will surely spark another major legitimacy crisis.
Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.