A Siamese Tragedy

The military coup in Thailand is the second high-profile collapse of a democracy in the developing world in the last seven years. The first was the coup in Pakistan in October 1999 that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power. There are some disturbing parallels between the two events. Both coups have been popular with the middle class, and in both countries the military promised to soon vacate power. Six years after ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Musharaff and the army are still in power in Pakistan. This precedent does not bode well for Thailand.

The coup is the latest in a series of setbacks for Thailand since a “people power” movement toppled the authoritarian leaders in 1992. Even before Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted on September 19, Thai democracy was in severe crisis because of a succession of elected but do-nothing or exceedingly corrupt regimes of which the Thaksin government was the worst. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which for all intents and purposes ran the country with no accountability from 1997 to 2001, further eroded the legitimacy of Thai democracy by imposing a program that brought great hardship to the majority. Thaksin stoked this disaffection with the IMF and the political system to create a majority coalition that allowed him to violate constitutional constraints and infringe on democratic freedoms, while using the state as a mechanism of private capital accumulation in an unparalleled fashion.

A politically diverse opposition with a middle-class base sought to oust Thaksin by relying not on electoral democracy but on the democracy of the street. In the last few months, the prime minister not only lost moral legitimacy but a great deal of political power. The democracy movement was about to launch the final phase to drive Thaksin out when the military intervened. Though it is now popular among Bangkokians, the coup will eventually prove to be a cure worse than the disease.

Democracy on the Ropes

Although Thaksin Shinawatra undermined the Thailand’s democratic regime democracy in the country was in bad shape before he came to power in January 2001. The first Chuan Leekpai government from 1992 to 1995 did not make even the slightest effort at social reform. The government of former provincial businessman Banharn Silipa-Archa, from 1995 to 1996, has been described as “a semi-kleptocratic administration where coalition partners were paid to stay sweet, just like he used to buy public works contracts.” The successor government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former general, was based on an alliance among big business elites, provincial bosses, and local godfathers. Relatively free elections were held, but they served mainly to determine which coalition of elites would have its turn at using government as a mechanism for private capital accumulation. Not surprisingly, the massive corruption, especially under Banharn and Chavalit, repelled the Bangkok middle class, and the urban and rural poor did not see the advent of democracy marking a change in their lives.

Democracy suffered a further blow in 1997-2001 following the Asian financial crisis. This time the local elites were not the culprit. The IMF pressured the Chavalit government, then the second Chuan government to adopt a very severe reform program that consisted of radically cutting expenditures, decreeing many corporations bankrupt, liberalizing foreign investment laws, and privatizing state enterprises. The IMF’s $72 billion rescue fund was spent not on saving the local economy but on enabling the government to pay off the country’s foreign creditors.

When the Chavalit government hesitated to adopt these measures, the IMF pressed for a change in government. The second Chuan government complied fully with the Fund, and for the next three years Thailand had a government accountable not to the people but to a foreign institution. Not surprisingly, the government lost much of its credibility as the country plunged into recession and one million Thais fell below the poverty line. Meanwhile the U.S. Trade Representative told the U.S. Congress that the Thai government’s “commitments to restructure public enterprises and accelerate privatization of certain key sectors-including energy, transportation, utilities, and communications-[are expected] to create new business opportunities for U.S. firms.”

The IMF, in short, contributed greatly to sapping the legitimacy of Thailand’s fledgling democracy. This was not the only instance where the Fund contributed to eroding the credibility of a government, especially among the poor. If there is today a pattern reversing the so-called “Third Wave” of democratization that took off as a trend in the developing world since the mid-seventies, the IMF-supported by the U.S. government-is part of the reason. Such IMF-inspired democratic reversals could be found in Venezuela in 1989, where a hike in transportation costs provoked an urban uprising against a weak democracy; in the Philippines, where the Fund squandered the legitimacy of the post-Marcos democracy by forcing it to make debt repayment instead of development its economic priority; and in Pakistan, where IMF and World Bank programs did much to undermine the legitimacy of the civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Monopoly Capitalism cum Populism

After running and winning on an anti-IMF platform, Thaksin inherited a severely compromised democracy when he took office in 2001. In his first year, he inaugurated three heavy spending programs that directly contradicted the IMF: a moratorium on farmers’ existing debt along with facilitating new credit for them, medical treatment for all at only 30 baht or less than a dollar per illness, and a one million baht fund for every district to invest as it saw fit. These policies did not bring on the inflationary crisis that the IMF and conservative local economists expected. Instead they buoyed the economy and cemented Thaksin’s massive support among the rural and urban poor.

This was the “good” side of Thaksin. However, having secured majority support with these and other practices that analysts Alec and Chanida Bamford call “neofeudal patronage,” he began to subvert the freedom of the press and to use government power to add to his wealth. He eased restrictions on his businesses and those of his cronies, and used his position to buy allies and buy off opponents. His war on drugs, which resulted in the loss of over 2,500 lives, bothered human rights activists but was popular with the majority. His hard-line, purely punitive policy toward the Muslim insurgency in three southern provinces simply worsened the situation there.

Just as Thaksin appeared to have created the formula for a long stay in power supported by an electoral majority, he overreached. In January 2006, his family sold their controlling stake in telecoms conglomerate Shin Corporation for $1.87 billion to a Singapore government front called Temasek Holdings. Before the sale, Thaksin had made sure the Revenue Department would interpret or modify the rules to exempt him from paying taxes. This brought the Bangkok middle class to the streets to demand his ouster in a movement that bore a striking resemblance to the “People Power Uprising” that overthrew Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in January 2001.

To resolve the polarization, Thaksin dissolved Parliament and called for elections, knowing that he would win elections handily, as his coalition had in 2001 and in 2005. Indeed, Thaksin’s coalition won 57% of the vote in the April elections. But the opposition boycotted, producing an opposition-less parliament. After a not-too-veiled suggestion by the revered King Bhumibol, the Supreme Court found the elections in violation of the Constitution and ordered them held once more. Thaksin resigned as prime minister and said he would be a caretaker until after new elections were held.


Polarization But Not Gridlock

The Thai conflict, in broad terms, pitted the urban and rural lower classes-the majority-against the middle classes, mainly the Bangkok middle class. The system of liberal democracy split into its component parts of liberalism and democracy. Invoking the legacy of liberalism, the people in the streets sought to remove Thaksin for his violations of human and civil rights and his arbitrary rule, while Thaksin’s supporters sought to keep him in power by appealing to the basic principle of a democracy–that is, the rule of the majority. The anti-Thaksin forces, however, claimed that Thaksin’s majority rule fit the phenomenon that John Stuart Mill described as the “tyranny of the majority.”

Prior to the coup, Thailand was not in gridlock. And it was far from descending into civil war. Thaksin’s resignation as prime minister indicated, more importantly, that the moral tide had turned against him. He had lost control, criticism of him was widespread in a media that was once tame, and the pressure was on for him to resign before the next elections, originally scheduled for October 15 but rescheduled for November. On Thursday, the day after the coup, the People’s Alliance for Democracy had planned to stage a mass rally to begin a final push against Thaksin from the streets.

This was democracy in action, with all its rough and tumble and the rambunctious efforts to resolve conflicting principles. Of course, the outcome was not guaranteed, but indeterminacy and prolonged resolution of disputes are part and parcel of the risks that come with democracy. Thais were wrestling to resolve the question of political succession through democratic, civilian methods. And it seemed like the democracy of the streets would successfully determine political succession, creating an important precedent in democratic practice. Direct democracy not only had relevance for the political succession; it was reinvigorating and renewing the democratic practice and democratic spirit.


Cure Worse than Disease

The military coup cut short a vibrant democratic process and was, everybody agrees, unconstitutional, illegal, and undemocratic. Many say, however, that yes, it is all this, but it is popular and it is valid because it ended a crisis. This is questionable. For several reasons, this coup may have temporarily ended the crisis but at the pain of provoking a much deeper one.

* Thaksin’s mass base of the poor and underprivileged will view post-coup regimes as possessing little democratic legitimacy.

* The military has reasserted its traditional, self-defined role as the “arbiter” of Thai politics, a function that had been defined as illegitimate for the last 14 years.

* There has emerged a dangerous informal institutional axis that would subvert future democratic arrangements between the military and the Royal Palace’s Privy Council, one of the few national political institutions not eliminated by military decree. Retired military strongman, General Prem Tinsulanonda heads up the council, and there is strong suspicion that he had more than just a neutral role in the affair. Several days before the coup, Prem told the military that their loyalty was principally “to the Nation and the King” not the government.

* The one really popularly drawn up constitution, the 1997 Constitution, has been abolished by military fiat. This constitution, approved after consultation with civil society, placed many controls on the exercise of parliamentary and executive power and on the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats. Ironically, the anti-Thaksin coup leaders, for all their rhetoric about “restoring democracy,” simply delivered the coup de grace to a very democratic document that Thaksin had systematically subverted.

Coup leader Army Chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin may well be sanguine about stepping aside. But personal predilections are no match for institutional interests. More than any other military in Southeast Asia, the Thai military has had a propensity for intervening in the political process, having launched some 18 military coups since 1932. Thai military men have an ingrained, institutional contempt for civilian politicians, regarding them as blundering fools. The generals have often promised to return to civilian rule after a coup, but proceeded to rule directly or indirectly through military-appointed civilians. Gen. Sondhi’s post-coup reassurances must be taken with the same seriousness as his claim days before the takeover that military coups “were a thing of the past.”

Already, the generals have drafted an interim constitution that makes them “advisers” to an interim civilian government. And they have appointed one of their own, Surayud Chulanont, a retired general and former Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, as interim premier. The April 28, 2003 issue of Time describes him as a military reformer but notes that troops of his elite unit played a role in repressing protestors during the bloody May 1992 uprising in Bangkok. He is definitely an Army insider and conservative in his political views.

This retreat from democracy bodes ill not only for Thailand. The coup is an expression of a larger trend-a deep crisis of legitimacy among elite democracies that came into being in the 1980s and 1990s as part of what Samuel Huntington called the “Third Wave of Democratization.” The Thai coup is the second high-profile collapse of an elite democracy in the last seven years. It may not be the last. Is there now a reverse wave leading democracies back to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes?

WALDEN BELLO is executive director of Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of A Siamese Tragedy: Development and Disintegration in Modern Thailand (London: Zed, 1998). He is a columnist for FPIF.



Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).