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Arrested democracy: why Thailand needs a new social contract – Marco Mezzera – Reprinted by special permission from NOREF
This expert analysis attempts to interpret the origins of the May 2014 military intervention in Thai politics (which the author actually witnessed, being in Bangkok at the time) and its consequences for the immediate and longer-term future of the country’s democracy.
While the military seems to have played its cards well, producing a power takeover that has so far run smoothly, it may only be slightly delaying its inevitable exit from political life. As an example of a country structurally embedded in the processes of globalisation, Thailand will soon need to come to terms with the internal tensions and opportunities that these processes produce. Authoritarian dictates or the exclusive control of power by elites will not be sufficient to keep the country together in the longer term.
If Thailand wants to return to pre-crisis growth rates and its aspiration of societal harmony, it needs to create the space for a reassessment and renegotiation of its social contract, in terms of which state-society relations become more inclusive and political confrontation is organised around the objective of national progress and not just in the interests of a few powerful individuals and their trusted cohorts.
The making of a coup
On May 20th 2014, after about seven months of political squabbles between two opposing popular movements and their political patrons, the Thai military finally decided to take matters into its own hands. This was the 12th time the army had intervened in the political life of the country since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, while seven other coup attempts failed over the same period. And as in the past, its declared objective was the restoration of peace and order to a situation that ran the risk of spinning out of control. The main concerns regarded the possibility of an escalation of violence between the two main camps – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Red Shirts movement, and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), originally defined as the Yellow Shirts movement.
The Thai army has always had an inner distrust of, if not outright contempt for, any political confrontation that threatened to disrupt the country’s social harmony, and its most recent intervention clearly indicates that it thought that the political quarrelling and indecisiveness had gone on for far too long.
Differently from past interventions, however, this time the army approached the task in a more gradual and subtle way. Rather than declaring an outright dismissal of civilian state authorities, it implemented a step-by-step approach, which included the introduction of martial law while formally preserving some of the country’s legislative and judicial institutions. Even the caretaker government was not immediately stripped of its powers. But the main message was nevertheless clear from the start: either a political comprise was to be reached within 24 hours or the army would enforce it in its own way.
By summoning the main representatives of the opposing political parties and movements, the military attempted to play a mediating role from a position of force. Ironically, it put itself in what for many peace mediators and facilitators is an ideal situation, i.e. that of having the power to enforce an agreement. But apparently the summoned parties did not intend to play by the army’s script, thereby making a serious misjudgement of the gravity of the situation. Rather than acknowledging the ultimatum and abiding by it, they continued in their obstinate unwillingness to seek a compromise and even reiterated their intentions to continue with the demonstrations planned for the following days. Such a recalcitrant response was probably precisely what the military had been waiting for. Just two days after the introduction of martial law, the head of the self-appointed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), General Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced the complete takeover of all state functions by the army, with the exception of some judicial functions.
Turning back the clock
Just a few hours after the announcement of the coup, it became immediately clear that the meticulous way in which it had been planned included also a minimisation of the use and show of violence. From the international airport of Suvarnabhumi to the commercial centre of the “city of angels” –, a stretch of highway and congested inner roads of about 30 kilometers – only one inactive military post could be seen in the late morning of May 23rd, barely a day after the announcement of the coup.
While some decisive action was undoubtedly taken at the demonstration sites, this had happened in a much more effective and violence-free way than the previous army intervention in May 2010, when 91 people lost their lives in the attempt to disband the Red Shirts’ barricades. Although the TV blackout and the severe media restrictions introduced by the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council in the immediate aftermath of the coup make it difficult to reliably assess the facts as they evolved on the streets of Bangkok, it can nevertheless quite safely be assumed that the dismantling of the protest sites happened without major violent confrontations. Local newspapers were even reporting on May 24th that thousands of protestors had been paid by government officials to abandon their rally sites. And over the weekend the traditionally vibrant shopping in the many malls of the city seemed to be back to normal, disturbed only slightly by the introduction of a curfew between 22:00 and 05:00.
Judging from the way the majority of Bangkok residents seemed to respond to the coup – i.e. by immediately resuming their normal lives – it can be deduced that the military was successful in attaining its primary declared objective – that of restoring peace and order to a country that had for months been on the verge of a violent confrontation between two polarised camps. However, the longer-term aim of restoring an acceptable degree of governability seems still very remote, especially if this is to be achieved through democratic means.
In general, the essential problem with this kind of military intervention in the political life of a country is that, no matter how dysfunctional or factional the political process is, a military coup is bound to turn back the clock of democratic evolution at a stroke. As Pakistan – another Asian country structurally affected by regular military interference in state affairs – shows, every time a general claims the right to determine the destiny of a country, whatever fragile democratic institutions have succeeded, however tentatively, in putting down roots in society will inevitably be suffocated and the process of democratic evolution will have to start all over again once civilian authority regains control through a legitimate democratic process.
A contested principle
This is the conclusion one is supposed to reach when adhering to the principles that are deemed to accompany the evolutionary path of any democracy.
But what if the “legitimate” political actors are entangled in such a struggle for power and dominance that they risk taking the country to the brink of self-destruction? What if their parochial interests are about to unleash a violent confrontation that is likely to adversely affect the whole country? In such cases, is an “external” intervention that pretends to act on the principle of impartiality towards the conflicting parties not possibly the best – and perhaps even the only – remedy to prevent a descent into chaos; and is it therefore not a guarantee of a return to a democratic path as soon as conditions will allow? If the political game is going nowhere, as was the case in Thailand, with a seemingly insurmountable stalling of the electoral process, is it then not better to call in a superior force that is formally detached from the political framework – and preferably has a monopoly on the use of violence – to dictate the (new) rules of the game for an interim period?
The problem with this kind of Machiavellian approach to political crises is that the attribution of impartiality to the intervening non-political actor is rarely accurate. An army announcing a coup is hardly a disinterested or apolitical player becoming involved in a country’s struggle for its future national identity and reorganization of power relations.
Hardly a disinterested coup d’état
The Thai coup seems indeed to confirm this doubt. Despite the army’s attempts to mask its intervention as politically neutral and that it is simply interested in re-establishing peace and order in the country, reports emerging in the days following the announcement of the takeover appeared to indicate that it is primarily those affiliated to the Red Shirts movement that have been particularly targeted by the military. While representatives of both camps were initially summoned and detained by the army, those belonging to the Democrat Party and PDRC seem to have enjoyed a somehow laxer treatment, with easier release procedures than those reserved for their opponents.
Such preferential treatment should not come as a surprise. In spite of the fact that, as previously mentioned, the army has an aversion to political activism, regardless of its colour, it has been mainly the Red Shirts camp that has been at the receiving end of most of the military’s attention since the beginning of the political crisis in 2006. The movement’s ideological leader in exile, Thaksin Shinawatra, was the elected prime minister when military leaders removed him from power on September 19th of that year.
The May 2014 coup reproduced a similar situation. This time, with Thaksin in self-exile because of his fears of becoming subject to biased judicial procedures and his sister, Yingluck, acting as prime minister after the resounding victory of her Pheu Thai party in the elections of July 2011, the military intervention eventually meant an abrupt end to her government with no guarantee that either she or her party would be reinstated in power any time soon.
Since the movement’s inception, the Red Shirts have been defined by their opponents as a kind of anti-nationalist movement, and definitely not as one particularly attached or sympathetic to the royal house. The self-aggrandising personality of their leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, has certainly contributed to allegations that he was directly challenging the hitherto undisputed and symbolic authority of the ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Whether these claims can be substantiated or not, it is a fact that they have become part of the general discourse in Thai society and have been incorporated into the dialectics of the two opposing camps.
As the guarantor of national unity and protector of the monarchy, the army has thus had an easy option in also using this argument to justify its intervention, and particularly its targeting of Red Shirts’ representatives for their alleged offences against the monarchy. In this respect it is interesting to note that in the immediate aftermath of the coup the sections of the Criminal Code that were indicated by the NCPO as being subject to court-martial proceedings were those dealing with national security concerns and, more precisely, with offences against the royal family.
But the apparent bond of loyalty linking the Thai armed forces to the monarch seems in reality to be more subtle and disputed than is at first apparent. According to other interpretations of the coup, the army had grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of an alliance between the Thaksin camp and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Widespread rumours also alleged that in the recent past Thaksin himself had paid off some of the Crown Prince’s considerable gambling debts. In addition, and perhaps as a way to strengthen such an alliance in the making, in 2013 Prime Minister Yingluck appointed the Crown Prince to command the strategically important royal guard regiment. This move is said to have upset the higher echelons of the military, because it involved a split in the line of command.
In addition, there are some indications that the army’s intervention may also have had an economic motivation. With Thaksin’s peculiar style of merging political and economic interests, parts of the country’s elites represented by the opposing block may have feared the risk of being gradually excluded from the most important economic deals that were being negotiated by the government and its affiliates. In addition, since Thaksin has been known for focusing mainly on pursuing transactions with large business conglomerates, the coup was received with a sigh of relief by the Thai small and medium-sized enterprises sector.
A final throw of the dice?
However, in the final analysis, the coup has exposed a general failure of the Thai governance system and of those institutions – the military included – that were supposed to keep the country together. The troubled Thai democratisation path has once again revealed all its persistent weaknesses, primarily its continuing incapacity to forge a way ahead free of military interventions. The political party system has equally failed to provide a credible alternative to an authoritarian approach to governance. Its record in terms of internal democracy has been abysmal. The traditional establishment, which includes the military, the royal house and the upper classes of society, has failed to create an advanced system that was able to deal in a democratic, non-violent way with the new challenges brought about by Thaksin’s populist policies. Finally, the coup has exposed a fundamental failure on the part of the military to reform itself in such a way as to make any intervention in national politics both impossible and unacceptable.
Looked at from this perspective, the coup could thus be regarded as a final attempt by a system in retreat to counter the inevitable course of history and the emergence of a governance system that is more responsive to the evolving demands of society.
Thailand has been structurally integrated into the global economy for the last few decades. The increasing exposure of its population to the accompanying aspects of globalisation, such as the democratic mechanisms that regulate the political life of most of the societies that Thais interact with, must have left a mark on Thai society. It can thus be expected that the Thai population, and especially the younger generations, will increasingly demand proper access to and participation in the political processes that impact on their daily lives.
At the same time, democracy in Thailand will need to go beyond the current winner-takes-all approach that characterises the country’s electoral contests. Other democratic mechanisms, checks and balances will need to be incorporated into the overall governance system so that a more broadly based consensus can be achieved and sustained.
The forces of the dominant establishment, which currently profess to be anti-Thaksin and resist the influence in politics of those rural masses that they consider dangerously ignorant and unsophisticated, will also need to realise that a certain degree of power sharing and acceptance of divergent political views is part of the democratic game. In other words, a new social contract needs to be negotiated between the wider society and the elites that have to date had privileged access to and control over power in the country.
In its turn, society itself will need to come to terms with the divisions that have polarised it since the start of the new millennium and are threatening to tear it apart. A certain degree of social cohesion will need to be achieved – perhaps not so much in terms of agreeing on a common vision for the future of the country, but at least by widespread acceptance of the principle that those involved in political confrontations will have to renounce violence and instead interact politically according to a set of accepted and institutionalised mechanisms.
Thailand may be close to reaching the end of its current historical trajectory. At such a critical juncture, with the uncertainty of the monarchical succession also playing an important role in the events currently unfolding, it is becoming clear that the dominant coalition that has controlled the fate of the country to date will have to give up part of its power and make the decision-making process more inclusive if it wants to survive and avoid irreparable fractures in society. Space for a genuine dialogue and even ideological confrontation needs to be opened up, including on other thorny issues such as the conflict in the south of the country, so that a stronger and more resilient society can eventually emerge, and where state institutions are considered legitimate and regarded as more inclusive than they used to be.
 This is the name chosen by the military for its institutional body overseeing the transition, before turning it into the NCPO and after it had been initially named the Peace and Order Maintaining Command.
 For example, on May 26th 13 PDRC leading figures, including its secretary general, Suthep Thaugsuban, were released on bail.
Marco Mezzera is a senior advisor at NOREF with responsibility for the Asia and Mediation programmes. He has 15 years of policy research experience in conflict and development, globalisation, and governance and democratisation issues, focusing on Asia. In the past, he spent five years in South-east Asia working as a research associate for a Bangkok-based policy research organisation. He holds an MSc in development studies and has co-authored four books and written several articles and policy reports.