With ongoing conflict in Bangkok, Thai society is confronted with the ghosts of its disrupted democracy. Coups are a peculiarly common feature of the modern Thai political system.
For many analysts, Thailand’s 19 modern military coups and attempted coups distinguish its elite political culture from those of other so-called ‘coup-prone’ states. Since a bloodless military coup in 1932 ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy, Thailand has failed to consolidate a democratic culture among its elites that would make coups inconceivable. Instead, episodic military interventionism – supported by persistent military influence in politics – is now part of a distinctive Thai coup culture that has been reproduced over many decades. This persistence in Thai society is explained by the links between the army and the palace, by the relative tolerance of Thai decision-makers for coups, by relations among economic elites and by the consistent support that all – even military governments – have received from foreign partners.
Many scholars have sought to contextualise the relevant ‘Thai-style’ (baeb thai) characteristics, but Thailand swings far more wildly from military meddling to democratic reignition than any other country. Thailand’s interventionist pattern has been reinforced by the special status of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family, who have been ‘protected’ (kan raksa) by the army at almost any cost. Defending the ‘institution’ (sataban) of the monarchy, which is officially considered the pinnacle of Thailand’s sacred and secular life, is the primary requirement of national security. This was the core justification for the 2006 coup launched against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thailand’s coup culture is best understood through four explanations. The first relates to persistent unease about threats to the monarchy, which has been regularly used to justify military interventions in ways that are culturally potent. Second, Thai decision-makers have remained relatively tolerant of military interventions. The military has not faced the level of resistance that has been so widely reported in other places, including neighbouring Burma. This can be partly explained by the close links between the military and the monarchy. Third, relations among economic elites have remained a crucial element of the culture of military interventionism. The recalibration of economic power is an almost inevitable post-coup outcome, going right back to 1932. In the case of Thaksin, his telecommunications fortune was an obvious target. Fourth, Thailand has received sustained international support, most notably from the USA. More specifically, the USA and other foreign governments have played key roles in the legitimation and fortification of the royal family and its military backers. International disquiet about Thailand’s coups has thus usually been muted, illustrating the importance of a secure Thailand as part of the Western security orbit.
Given these four explanatory propositions, Thailand may struggle to cultivate an elite political culture where coups would be unacceptable. At this stage, coups clearly still play a major role in Thai mainstream politics. Episodic re-democratisation has not led to the final consolidation of a democratic system, and wariness about electoral outcomes remains very strong, especially among those with the political and materiel capabilities to launch coups. Each year, Thailand tends to experience at least one period of frenzied coup speculation. We are currently witnessing the consequences of this culture.
For Thailand, the persistence of coups, long after democratic institutions were assumed to be robust, indicates that some of the fundamental structures of political life have not been shifted by burgeoning democratic instincts. The prevailing situation is largely a product of King Bhumibol’s reign and the deliberate symbiosis that has drawn military leaders into his circle. That symbiosis gives continued justification for occasional coups – and will likely ensure that new generations will become acculturated to military interventionism in a system where elite decision-makers have only haphazardly embraced the democratic ideal.
Dr Nicholas Farrelly is a Research Fellow at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, and co-founder of New Mandala, a website on mainland South-East Asia.
This is an abbreviated version of an article “Why democracy struggles: Thailand’s elite coup culture” published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.