Desperate Thai elites get their wish for a coup

The Thai army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, staged a military coup Thursday afternoon. It was the 19th coup since Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The coup reiterates the essence of martial law launched two days earlier, which gives full authority to the military to take tight control of the political situation, including the suspension of civil rights and curbs on media and academic freedoms — all in the name of restoring law and order.

Essentially the military’s latest coup should be perceived as an act of disparaging democratic principles. Once again, an elected government has been overthrown in the most illegitimate way. The future of Thai politics remains ever so murky.

During the six months of street protests spearheaded by the anti-government forces, the military had appeared not to want to intervene in politics.

At the same time, the leader of the anti-government demonstrators, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former member of Parliament from the opposition Democrat Party, has campaigned for the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, accusing her of inheriting the practice of corruption from Thaksin, her older brother, who was prime minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006.

One of the key tactics had been to create a situation of ungovernability to provide a rightful context for a new coup.

While the military might have initially been reluctant to interfere in politics, other independent institutions that represent the interests of the traditional elites had joined hands in what could be called “coordinated attacks” against the Yingluck government.

From the Constitutional Court, the Anti-Corruption Agency, the Election Commission to the Human Rights Commission, they did not hesitate to fully exercise their authority to undermine the government.

Eventually it was the Constitutional Court that handed down a verdict, which led to the stepping down of Yingluck from the premiership. That was the third “judicial coup” staged by the Thai court in six years. The first two judicial coups ended up toppling the two Thaksin-backed regimes of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat.

Even after the judicial coup, there was no sign of the Pheu Thai government crumbling. Thaksin, in the wake of Yingluck being toppled, nominated Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan to serve as acting prime minister in anticipation of the next election.

Realizing that the Pheu Thai remained popular with solid backing by “red-shirt” supporters, the protesters continued to challenge the position of the government such as occupying state offices including Government House, seizing television stations, and blocking roads and highways.

The disruptions stirred up by the anti-government protesters subsequently legitimized the military’s intervention in politics through the declaration of martial law. But a group of legal professors at Thammasat University under the name “Nitirat” quickly issued a statement arguing that the martial law declared by the army chief is indeed unconstitutional.

The martial law decree must be invoked and signed by the king. This brought up the issue of the legality of martial law and raised the question of whether the army was manipulating the political situation.

Now with the coup marking one of the darkest moments in Thai politics, an important question emerges regarding the real reason behind the army’s latest political intervention.

It is well known in Thailand that the military has never worked alone when it comes to staging a military coup. The close association between the army and the Privy Council, headed by Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister, could explain why the coup happened.

Prem has long represented the interests of the Thai traditional elites. He has become an indispensable component of the so-called network monarchy, which has been in operation since the 1960s.

Despite having no position within the formal political system, the network monarchy had effectively controlled Thai politics with the general understanding that civilian governments were to be kept vulnerable and weak, and faced the possibility of a coup if they threatened the network.

Thaksin’s electoral successes and Yingluck’s own political strength have disturbed and worried the network monarchy.

Particularly at this crucial point in Thai politics, eliminating the Shinawatra family will not only ensure the continued domination of power in the hands of the Thai elites; it will also enable the old elites to predict their future — after King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes from the scene — simply because they will still be in charge of the royal transition.

But getting rid of the Shinawatra family will not be an easy task. Thaksin’s political influence has taken deep root in the past decade, mainly because he has successfully transformed the Thai political landscape in a way that framed the competition for power by a party’s ability to conquer electorates.

The traditional elites have never been willing to invest in the game of electoral politics. They still rely on traditional shortcuts for maintaining their power position — through guns and coups.

The coup will not direct Thailand to an exit. If the royal succession is the key to the political puzzle, then Thais will have to wait a little longer when the transition actually occurs. But time is running out for the elites. The coup reflects a great sense of their desperation to hold on tightly to power.

The majority of Thais prefer to see the problem settled by election. They have long protested peacefully through ballot boxes, but their voices have been repeatedly denied. This silent coup might spur them to resort to violent protests, as witnessed at Rachaprasong in 2010.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the author of two books: A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations and Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy.

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