Less than a year ago, in May 2014, a meeting at The Thai Army Club between the various political factions ended abruptly when army chief General Prayuth Chano-ocha, decided that Thailand could no longer endure further instability, announcing that the country was once again under military rule. The rationale behind this latest coup d’état, Thailand’s 19th in 83 years, was to bring “society to love and be at peace again”. Prayuth broke this solemn vow last Friday when former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who had enjoyed mass popular appeal, was impeached by the junta-appointed legislature (ironically from a position she no longer held, under a constitution already repealed). Her accompanying five-year ban from frontline politics means she cannot contest the next general election, widely expected in 2016. Ms Yingluck also faces a criminal charge that could result in a jail term of up to ten years. With her supporters furious and rumours rife of deep division within the military, the prospect of calming the troubled waters in Thai politics and society looks more remote than ever.
Whilst current developments centre on Ms Yingluck and her recent administration, it is really her brother who the lit the flames. Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist vision of free market reforms for social mobility and a strong economy posed a distinct threat to the moneyed classes and, while the former PM regularly professed in office his undying love of the monarchy, his charismatic authority was depicted by opponents as having an inherent republican nature, one that threatened the status of the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej as well as the institutions many associate with entrenched privilege in Thai society. While analysts point out that Thaksin had no interest in being a President, in fact he knew it was royalty which held the power, allowing him to pursue his democratic mandates to rule pragmatically over Thailand, in much the way Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did for decades. By the time of Thaksin’s ousting in 2006 he was already the longest-serving democratically-elected Prime Minister of Thailand; having been elected in 2001 with an outright parliamentary majority, a first in Thai politics, and winning every subsequent election. Ultimately, the 2014 coup took place because Thaksin’s ‘red’ politics, though the man himself this time was exiled in Dubai, were centred on wholesale social and economic reform targeting the poor. The elite had been unable assert their interests through democratic means as the right-wing parliamentary opposition, the Democrat Party, provided no credible alternative, having failed to win a national election in over twenty years. Thaksin’s policies provided the rural poor with a taste of what politics could do for them, while the Democrat Party continues to represent old politics, where a corrupt elite in Bangkok begrudgingly give the masses only the crumbs of economic growth from the capital, nothing more. Barely 10% of government spending went outside Bangkok thirty years ago, by the end of Ms Yingluck’s administration it had more than doubled to around 25%.
Yingluck Shinawatra had won at the polls in 2011 with a landslide victory, having promised to continue Thaksin-like policies – rejuvenating the economy, but in a way that was focused on delivering prosperity for the regions traditionally ignored by development, while also seeking to restore national pride after the 2010 Bangkok massacre. The Bangkok-based royalist and business elite resented the new PM’s policy directives, eventually staging a shutdown of the capital and infiltrating government ministries. A snap election held in January 2014 intended to end tensions resulted in escalating them, seeing Yingluck Shinawatra deposed through judicial means in May, whilst allowing a zombie caretaker government to continue for months; giving the army cover to advantageously impose martial law and force “peace talks” between the sides which then ended in the coup.
Since the coup the position of General Prayuth and the shadowy figures behind him has hardened. The indication is that unlike previous coups this one portends longer and potentially more permanent change to the democratic order in Thailand, with General Prayuth seemingly determined to finish the job he started, aided by martial law, severe restrictions on the press and arguably sufficient competence. After the impeachment verdict on January 23rd, Ms Yingluck was set to hold a press conference but army tanks rolled into the building car park and the military stormed the hotel to prevent her from speaking. Forced to Facebook, she commented that the National Legislative Assembly ruling has death knelled democracy and the rule of law in Thailand. Her pledge “to fight until the end” suggests she won’t be seeking an easy way out in exile. If correct, a public battle between Ms Yingluck and the royalist army looks inevitable, to all extents symbolising the continued division that exists within society. General Prayuth has said “don’t ask me for democracy… I cannot give you that”. Sadly, democracy is the one thing that Thailand needs if it is to find a way out of its troubles.