Over the past two months, Thailand has been wrenched backward into a dark age. In May, partisan judges forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office, and then royalist generals seized power from the caretaker government. It was the 13th military coup since the end of the absolute monarchy eight decades ago.
Once again the generals were claiming to step into a political mess simply to restore order. But this time the stakes are especially high, particularly for the traditional elite — the military, conservative royalists, many judges and senior bureaucrats and big businesses. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 years old, and the crown prince is not as popular. The military, wary of any uncertainties in the approaching succession battle, which it sees as a zero-sum game, is trying to silence critics of the old-time elite, including members of the Red Shirt movement backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s brother and a former prime minister himself.
It seemed at first that the Shinawatras’ supporters would be the best counterforce against the military. But the coup makers promptly went after the Red Shirts’ networks in far-flung provinces, arresting some local leaders. As a result, official condemnation of the coup by the international community has been more important than it might otherwise have been, and still more pressure on the generals could prove surprisingly effective.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — the army chief, coup leader and now self-appointed interim prime minister — has made vague promises about an eventual return to democracy. Meanwhile, the junta has been trying to bolster its popularity with crude populism and by promoting a program under the banner “Returning Happiness to Thais.” It has showered the population with expensive short-term treats, like free broadcasts of the World Cup on national TV and free tickets to patriotic movies.
Despite the official facade of national unity, the junta has tried to suppress even the mildest expressions of dissent, harassing and detaining critics, and in some cases charging them under an archaic lèse-majesté law that forbids criticism of the royal family. (On May 24, I was summoned to appear before the army for speaking out against the coup. I live in Kyoto and refused to go, and on June 13 an arrest warrant was issued against me.)
In response, some Western countries have begun to impose sanctions on the junta. The European Union, which has called for immediate elections and the release of all political prisoners, announced on June 23 that it was suspending all official visits to Thailand and putting on hold a planned free-trade pact. Days later, the United States government said it would be cutting its annual military assistance to the Thai government by more than $4.7 million. Australia has halted its defense-cooperation program and announced a ban on travel visas for the junta.
These measures are relatively limited and were predictable, yet the junta is reacting with great unease, as if it were at a loss over what to do. On the one hand, General Prayuth said recently that Thailand should solve its problems “in our own Thai style.” On the other hand, the interim government released many of the dissidents it detained after just several days of intimidation in army custody. And Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary of the Thai Foreign Ministry, extended a kind of peace offering to the European Union: “We should look at the long-term benefits of keeping the relationship.” The junta’s inconsistent messaging suggests that it feels vulnerable.
And vulnerable it is. The Thai military’s last coup in 2006 proved a failure because Mr. Thaksin’s political influence endured even after he was deposed, and the next election brought another pro-Thaksin party to power. The generals are busy cracking down on Thaksin supporters because they are wary of repeating the same mistake, even though that undermines the claim that their latest putsch was a coup for democracy.
With such shaky legitimacy, the junta has been distributing economic benefits to the population to secure its support. It has ordered the disbursement of funds to poor farmers owed by Ms. Yingluck’s government under a rice-subsidy program. It has also said it would inject close to $30 billion — or 40 percent of the budget for this fiscal year — into infrastructure projects in remote areas.
The junta seems to think its survival depends on its popular appeal. That in turn may depend on the junta’s ability to deliver economic benefits — which in turn may depend on how much Western countries are willing to tolerate the suspension of democratic freedoms.
Thailand is particularly vulnerable to sanctions because the country is an essential link in the global supply chains of crucial commodities like rice and automobiles. Buyers are also dependent on these supply chains, but they can more readily turn to, say, Vietnam and Myanmar to buy rice than Thailand can diversify the goods it produces. This is one reason the junta is making overtures to Beijing: Just two weeks after the coup, General Prayuth was shaking hands with Chinese business leaders, with an eye to offsetting the effects of sanctions from the West.
The United States and the European Union have warned that they may take more aggressive steps, including boycotting Thai products, if the generals fail to restore democracy. Some of the coup’s most conservative backers have responded by calling for retaliatory boycotts against American and European products. Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister and a royalist, declared that Thailand should simply “close for renovation.”
These are silly reactions, of course, but like the generals’ turn to Beijing, they reveal a deep anxiety about the damage that pressure from the West may do to the Thai economy and the junta’s popularity. Sanctions are often derided as symbolic and ineffectual, but they are proving useful against the coup leaders in Bangkok.
The West should broaden its reach. Increasing the economic costs of the junta’s illegitimate hold on power would loosen the generals’ grip, and help the Red Shirts and other anti-junta activists restore democracy in Thailand.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.