Thailand’s Troubled Democracy
(Bloomberg) -- Thailand is a relatively prosperous nation with strong banks, modern factories, flourishing tourism, a growing middle class and other typical markers of a successful democracy. Which is exactly what it lacks. Thailand has had so many coups in its modern history that scholars sometimes refer to the last eight decades as its “coup season.” In between, there has been violent political strife. The latest round featured deadly street clashes, politically tainted corruption trials and the army taking control after an election derailed by protests. More than three years on, the junta is still in charge and there’s no exact date yet for new elections. With its interventionist military and polarized population, will Thailand ever get the hang of democracy?
Thailand entered a one-year mourning period after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, then the world’s longest-reigning monarch, died Oct. 13, 2016. The 88-year-old ruler, whose portrait hangs in most homes and shops, was a symbol of stability amid the political turmoil that accompanied his seven-decade reign. (A date for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol's only son, has yet to be announced.) Since the most recent overthrow of an elected government, in May 2014, the junta has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for new elections, which are now planned for November 2018. Junta chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who also serves as prime minister, says the elections are dependent on bridging the nation’s decade-long political divide. He's withstood demands to loosen strict curbs on political campaigning and has prosecuted officials in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which he ousted in the 2014 coup. Yingluck fled the country in 2017, joining her brother Thaksin Shinawatra — who was ousted by the military in 2006 — in exile. Thaksin and his allies have won every election dating back to 2001, with his opponents taking power periodically after interventions by the military or courts. Protests began in 2013 against a bill that would have absolved Thaksin, a telecom billionaire-turned-politician, following a post-coup corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. They evolved into a wider push to upend Thaksin’s electoral dominance, underpinned by subsidies for rice farmers and cheap health care for the rural poor. His detractors — including civil servants, royalists and the Democrat party — accuse him of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and undermining the monarchy.
Thailand has had about a dozen coups since the country’s seven-century rule of kings ended with a bloodless 1932 putsch that turned the Kingdom of Siam into a constitutional monarchy. The economy was kick-started by U.S. economic aid that rewarded Thailand’s postwar campaign against communism, then propelled by Japanese and European manufacturers tapping Thai workers to make cars and disc drives for world markets. Successive governments met early ends at the hands of the military or the courts. Thailand has had more than 20 prime ministers since 1946, when Bhumibol assumed the throne. The economy has proved resilient, bouncing back from the Asian currency crisis in 1997, the devastating tsunami in 2004 and crippling floods in 2011. About two-thirds of Thailand’s 67 million people live in rural areas and more than 90 percent are Buddhist.
Thaksin's supporters are enraged by the way their repeated victories have been overturned, and argue that Thailand needs a robust political framework that allows politicians to fight it out without the risk of military meddling. Bangkok’s urban middle class and royalist elite reject that idea, advocating a more limited democracy that allows them to overrule the masses in poorer northern areas that formed Thaksin's base — ensuring that the current power structure remains in place. While the worst outcome could be a breakup of the country or even a civil war, those tensions have remained latent in recent years as the military has quashed dissent. Thailand's traditional ruling class must now figure out a way to maintain their legitimacy to govern as pressure grows to have elections. Much will depend on whether the elite can back a political party that meets the basic needs of the poorer members of Thai society — something that endeared them to Thaksin in the first place.
The Reference Shelf
- King Bhumibol’s obituary.
- A Time magazine explainer on Thailand's latest constitution.
- 2014 profiles of Prayuth Chan-Ocha by the BBC and the Independent.
- Bloomberg Markets article from October 2013 on Thailand’s rural boom.
- Paul Handley’s biography of Bhumibol Adulyadej, “The King Never Smiles.”
- New Mandala website, a forum for academic debates about Southeast Asia hosted by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
- The World Bank’s Thailand page.
First published Jan.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.