Oddly timed Thai coup a sign of trouble in military and monarchy

Would that it were. EPA/Narong Sangnak

Ostensibly, the May 22 coup was just the latest instalment in Thailand’s decade-long political conflict. On one side are the forces loyal to tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra: some business elites, the police, some soldiers, and the “red-shirts” – poor and lower-middle-income Thais who benefited from Thaksin’s rule from 2001-2006. On the other are traditional elites – dominant army factions, senior bureaucrats and judges and other oligarchs – backed by Bangkok’s middle-class, “yellow-shirt” protesters. The two sides have fought since 2004, with governmental control shifting back and forth between them.

But the timing of this coup, and the severity of the subsequent crackdown suggest it is motivated by deep tensions and unprecedented stakes.

The current crisis began in November 2013 when anti-government yellow-shirt protesters seized parts of Bangkok, paralysing the government. Yingluck was forced to declare early elections in February, which the yellow-shirts and their allied Democrat Party boycotted, prompting the anti-government courts to overturn the result. However, despite growing tensions and violence on the streets, the army persistently remained in its barracks, permitting the police to clear the protest sites. By early May, the yellow-shirts were confined to a tiny park. The government seemed to be riding out the pressure.

This makes the coup’s timing curious: Prayuth’s claim that it was necessary to arrest rising violence does not fit events on the streets. This coup might therefore have been driven by more subterranean tensions: conflicts within the military, and the succession of the monarchy.

Military rift?

The first set of explanations concern tensions within the army. The generals behind the coup belong to a single faction – the “Eastern Tigers”, or Queen’s Guard. They may have felt threatened by Yingluck’s courting of other military factions, and by the Crown Prince’s newfound control over other army regiments.

The regime also claims to have detected attempts to smuggle weapons into Thailand, possibly to arm pro-government military or paramilitary elements. They have arrested 21 individuals and seized arms caches.

The possibility that the coup aimed to defend the Eastern Tigers’ dominance is underscored by rumours that it was the Tigers’ patron, General Prawit Wongsuwan, a shadowy backer of the 2013-14 protests, who forced a reluctant Prayuth to seize power. Prawit’s subsequent installation as chair of the junta’s “advisory board” lends credence to this theory.

These rumours generated alarmist speculation about a possible civil war. However, the red-shirts lack the organisation, resources and inclination to pursue that option, while the army has so far remained intact.

Game of thrones?

Another possibility is that the king is close to death, and the military intervened to control the succession, denying it to their rivals.

Thailand’s king, Bhumibol, has been gravely ill for years. Although open discussion of the succession is banned in Thailand, given the throne’s strategic utility in legitimising successive governments (and the crown’s $37bn asset portfolio) the question of who will succeed Bhumibol has always accompanied the red/yellow struggle.

Under Thailand’s post-WWII military dictatorships, the army deliberately sculpted the monarchy into a semi-divine institution that they could use to legitimise their rule. The monarchy became a powerful weapon: branding Thaksin a threat to the king allowed his enemies to mobilise middle-class Thais against him, generating the first yellow-shirt protests in 2005.

But today, the monarchy is unstable. Bhumibol’s son, Vajiralongkorn, is widely reviled for his playboy lifestyle, making traditional elites fear that, after Bhumibol dies, the monarchy’s capacity to legitimise their power grabs could evaporate. Accordingly, they have favoured his more popular sister, Sirindhorn. Conversely, Thaksin has apparently courted Vajiralongkorn, paying off his gambling debts and lavishing him with gifts.

Bhumibol has not appeared in public for months; when last he did, he appeared physically incapacitated. Importantly, Prayuth has not sought a televised audience with him to obtain a rubber-stamp for his coup, as per usual practice: he merely received a letter, and was photographed bowing to Bhumibol’s picture.

Meanwhile, Vajiralongkorn flew to Britain on 18 May – suggesting either that he foresaw the coup, or that his departure created the opening the military needed to strike. All this suggests a deep concern with the succession underpinning the coup.

Meddling at the controls

The junta’s post-coup actions further distinguish this intervention from the 2006 coup. Despite brave anti-coup protests, the regime has clamped down hard, curtailing media freedom, censoring social media, suspending freedoms of speech and assembly, and detaining politicians, activists, journalists and academics, releasing them only when they promise to refrain from “political agitation”. The junta has apparently settled in for the long haul, embarking on extensive “national reform” – a purge of red-shirts and sympathisers and a massive restructuring of Thailand’s “political, social and economic institutions” – before democracy is restored, presumably rigged to disadvantage the Thaksinistas.

Déjà coup? EPA/Pongmanat Tasiri

This might seem a massive victory for the yellow-shirts, who had called for “reform before elections” and demanded the destruction of what they still called the “Thaksin regime”. In reality, this coup is just as doomed to fail as the 2006 one.

Social conflict cannot be engineered out of existence by institutional tinkering, however thorough. Close to a decade of electoral boycotts, constitutional gerrymandering, judicial coups and even military intervention has changed nothing about the forces driving Thailand’s political crisis. The two coalitions contesting state power have remained largely unchanged since 2005, and whatever Thaksin’s hateful attributes, the idea he represents – that poorer Thais should finally get their just share of political power and economic resources – stubbornly refuses to die.

Thailand’s lower orders steadfastly decline to be written out of Thai history. Indeed, their recent experience of political mobilisation has only reinforced their sense of injustice and commitment to improve their lot.

Historically, the only way to stem such a tide of rising expectations has been massive, sustained violence. This occurred in Thailand in 1973 and 1976, when massacres and counter-insurgency warfare beat back a rising Thai left. But the context today is entirely different. Unlike during the Cold War, the West cannot applaud and support such brutality. The Thai military also lacks the stomach for it – hence its resort to institutional tinkering.

But the Thaksinistas are equally incapable of simply quashing their enemies. They have repeatedly failed to impose their will upon the state apparatus, and they apparently lack the ability to reverse the coup, let alone prosecute a civil war. The situation remains identical to 2005: neither side is strong enough to defeat the other using the available means.

No concessions

The only solution to Thailand’s perpetual socio-political crisis is therefore a new social contract: a settlement that more equitably distributes political and economic power among key groups. This has been obvious for many years, but Thailand’s traditional elites have persistently blocked progress by refusing to cede anything of significance to the lower orders or to the despised Thaksin faction.

At times, yellow-shirt leaders have flirted with pro-poor policies to co-opt Thaksin’s supporters (the army are doing so now by dispensing subsidies to rice farmers, a policy for which Yingluck was pilloried). And we have seen red-shirt politicians, notably Yingluck, courting former rivals and pursuing reconciliation. But these efforts have been half-hearted and wholly insufficient.

The traditional elite’s resort to a coup suggests they are still unwilling to make any serious concessions. Until they do, Thailand can only dream of peace.

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