07 July 2016
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Thailand’s military madness

Thailand’s 2014 military coup may have been the 20th since 1932. But this one was also fundamentally different, writes John West.

Thailand’s successful development

Thailand’s politics have long been dominated by the military and the country’s charismatic king, who have ensured that the economy serves the direct interests of the Bangkok elite. Governments have typically been kept weak and vulnerable, and regularly deposed by the military.

The “land of smiles” has nevertheless enjoyed great success over the past few decades. Thailand’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms leapt from $4300 in 1990 to $15700 in 2014. The country ranks 32nd in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. And extreme poverty has been virtually eliminated.

Keys to Thailand’s success have been its ability to attract large flows of foreign direct investment, especially from Japan, and international tourists -- despite periodic bouts of instability. And thanks to its "locational advantage", it has been able to attract many corporate regional headquarters.

Thailand’s success is particularly outstanding compared with its neighbor, the Philippines, which has a similar sized population, but a GDP per capita of only $6970, less than one-half that of Thailand. Both countries are notorious for their corruption, with Thailand ranking 76th and the Philippines 95th in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

But as a former Thai minister once said to me, “We may be corrupt, but we get things done. Indeed, our successful infrastructure projects provide opportunities for corruption, which satisfy the appetites of our rapacious elites. The Philippine elites just fight over their tiny national pie, and are not smart enough to build up their country for the benefit of everyone.”

Thailand’s middle income trap

Despite Thailand’s relative success, it has fallen into a “middle income trap”. Like the cases of several Latin American countries before it, there seems little prospect of Thailand achieving high-income status.

There are many reasons for this. Thailand’s education system is poor, as reflected in its low ranking in the OECD’s PISA education program. It now has a very rapidly aging population, and the economy increasingly relies on poorly educated migrants.

Thailand is not a very easy country in which to do business, as evident in a World Bank survey. It has not been able to take advantage of its participation in global value chains to graduate to higher value added activities. And Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia have recently emerged as strong competitors for Thailand.

Moreover, Thailand has a terribly polarized society. Income inequality is high. One of the most striking aspects of inequality is the large gaps between the poor, rural north and northeast regions, and the Bangkok area. And political instability has also been dragging the country down.

Election of Thaksin Shinawatra

It was against this background that in 2001 Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Thailand's Prime Minister, as a "champion of the poor", much to the displeasure of the Bangkok elites (the monarchy, military, the judiciary, the senior civil service and the Democrat Party). Thaksin himself is not however poor. He is an extremely rich telecommunications tycoon.

Thaksin implemented pro-poor policies for infrastructure, education, public health, debt relief and microfinance. Most agree that these policies bettered the lives of poor rural north and northeastern communities. Moreover, Thaksin proved to be a politician who honored his promises to the poor, who still support his party strongly today.

Critics of Thaksin's pro-poor policies describe them as "populist" or even vote-buying. Others would admire them for being "inclusive growth" policies.

But there was more to Thaksin than inclusive growth. Aggressive efforts to tackle the drug trade involved brutal, extrajudicial violence, and very many deaths. High-handed policies in Thailand's deep south helped fan a violent separatist insurgency. And Thaksin was seen as being extremely corrupt, even by Thai standards, for example, by exploiting government contracts.

In short, Thaksin proved to be a divisive, polarizing figure, who pitted himself against the traditional Thai elite.

Removing Thaksin

Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006. He was convicted of corruption, and now lives in exile in Dubai.

His proxy party was re-elected in 2007. But defections led to a change of government in 2009. The Democrat Party, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, ruled from 2009-2011. However, in 2011 it lost an election to Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Phue Thai Party.

The reign of Yingluck was also marked by controversy such as accusations of behind-the-scenes interference by Thaksin, abuse of power in government appointments, and a flawed and corrupted rice scheme that created a national financial disaster, with estimated losses of $15 billion.

A major catalyst for further social unrest was a foolishly provocative attempt to pass an Amnesty Act that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand without having to face a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

Return to military rule

Yingluck was removed from power in May 2014 by the constitutional court, rather than through the democratic electoral process. The military then took over in a coup, by one count the 20th coup since 1932. One of the reasons given for the coup was the violent civil unrest that had erupted between the supporters of the two main political factions, the "yellow shirts" (representing the establishment) and the "red shirts" (Shinawatra and pro-democracy faction). There are rumours that royal palace members helped foment these street protests.

But the military’s 2014 coup had a much bigger agenda.

First, the military was determined to eliminate the Shinawatra family and the red shirt movement from Thai political life (“de-Thaksinification). It sees majoritarian democracy as an existential threat to its dominance of Thai political life, since the Bangkok elite does not have the numbers to win a democratic election. Indeed, Shinawatra-affiliated parties have won all elections since 2001.

Yingluck was impeached in 2015, and banned from political life for 5 years. The military has substantially eliminated the red-shirt movement. The lese-majesty law (defaming, insulting or threatening the monarchy) is being freely used to curb political dissent and eliminate opposition figures. The military government is imposing widespread restrictions on freedom of speech, press and assembly, and there many reports of human rights abuses.

Human rights and civil rights activists, journalists and academics are in particular subject to great restrictions. For example, outspoken academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist, received an arrest warrant, had his passport revoked and had to apply for refugee status in Japan. His family has been intimidated, and the military government unsuccessfully asked the Japanese government to extradite him (and other similar cases) to Thailand.

Second and most importantly, the military wants to be in control of Thailand to manage the country’s prospective royal succession in order to protect its power interests. The monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been ailing for a few years.

The 88 year old King Bhumibol has reigned since 1946, making him the world's longest reigning current monarch and the world's longest serving head of state. He is loved and revered by most Thai people and has been key to national stability. He is not just a symbolic figurehead, but has intervened periodically as national conciliator in Thai politics, with the support of the military.

The King has thus prevented the development of institutions for the peaceful resolution of disputes and political differences. Indeed, the elite has come to expect the King and the military to solve social and political problems for them. Ironically, this has been one key factor in the awakening of anti-monarchist sentiments in Thailand.

The major problem for Thailand’s royal succession is that the Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, could never be like the semi-godlike figure of King Bhumibol. The Crown Prince is widely regarded as a playboy, with little interest in the royal court. He has not been liked by the Thai people or the military. Indeed, there have been rumours of a close relation between the Crown Prince and Thaksin.

However, as the inevitable royal succession has drawn closer, the Crown Prince has been building bridges with the military, whose support he will need. And the divorce in 2015 of his wife, whose family exploited the Crown Prince’s name, is also seen to be a constructive step in preparation for his succession. There have also been rumours that the much more popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn rather than the Crown Prince might ascend the throne, but this seems to be more like wishful thinking.

The military government has, without public input, prepared a few new draft constitutions, with the latest being subject to a referendum in August 2016. Although the draft is ostensibly in preparation for a return to democracy and civil rule, in reality the draft constitution merely cements the military’s role as the country’s ultimate authority and will hinder attempts by Thaksin to return to power.

The long, drawn out process of drafting a constitution may also have been a ploy to enable the military to stay in power. Promises of an election keep being postponed, and there is now no likelihood of an election being held before 2017. The military government’s “roadmap to democracy” was just rhetoric.

It seems sure that when the King does eventually pass that the military will invoke martial law, and enforce a long period of national mourning until a safe and stable royal succession is realized.

Thailand’s political future

Thailand needs to establish a genuine majoritarian democracy, based on the rule of law, to ensure long-term political stability, and to return the country to a path of sustainable economic growth. Economic growth has been poor these past three years, averaging only a little of 2% per annum. But successful majoritarian democracy requires several challenging conditions.

First, the military should return to the barracks, and no longer intervene in national politics. Military intervention in politics is now only exacerbating Thailand’s polarized society. As in all mature democracies, the military should be under the control of the civilian government, rather than the reverse.

Second, the monarchy should also retreat from national politics. In fact, there will be virtually no sensible alternative following the royal succession, since there is no likelihood whatsoever of Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, commanding the great respect that King Bhumibol has.

Third, national reconciliation and a new social contract are necessary. The Bangkok elite must recognize that the world have changed. They must learn to compromise, share the spoils of economic growth and find a new political consensus.

Thanks to Thaksin, the poor from Thailand's north and northeast have tasted the benefits of inclusive growth, and many are willing to fight on for social justice. Further, Thailand now has a growing democracy movement thanks to its emerging middle class and better educated population, which has access to the Internet and social media, a broader political awareness and desire for political participation.

Today, Thailand needs a new democratically elected government which governs on behalf of the whole nation, based on a new deal which is seen to be a fair deal by all major groups of society. But by all reports, the Bangkok elite holds the nation's poor in contempt, who they consider to be ignorant, uneducated and stupid.

Looking ahead, democracy prospects in Thailand are dim. Thailand now has a broken society and broken political system, and there is no sign of the leadership necessary to find a way out of its impasse towards national reconciliation. Continued repression will only exacerbate Thailand’s polarized society. At a Brookings Conference in February 2016, Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds, summed up the situation neatly when he said “I’ve never really been more pessimistic than I am at the moment”.
Tags: asean, thailand, military coup, thaksin, yingluck

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