By Ernest Bower & Gregory Poling
Just two days after declaring martial law in what many observers deemed a “half-coup,” Thailand’s military finished the job on May 22. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha invited both government and opposition leaders to a second day of talks only to detain them and declare on national television that the military was taking control of the government. According to Prayuth, the seizure of power is necessary to “reform the political structure, the economy and the society.” But while many observers were willing to see a silver lining in the possibility that martial law could stabilize Thailand’s months-long political crisis and lead to a way out, this coup represents a historic gamble endangering the credibility of governance and country’s most important institutions.
This is Thailand’s 12th effective, and 19th attempted, military coup since 1932. But today’s Thailand is a very different place—a fact that Prayuth clearly recognized over the last six months as he repeatedly said the military had no interest in governing. It is no longer a country that can be run by horse-trading and backroom deals among political cliques in and around the capital. Significant parts of the electorate—economically empowered, politically aware, and technologically-connected—including the rural population in the north and northeast, support the just-ousted Pheu Thai government. By tapping into that new base, Pheu Thai’s patron, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, unleashed a genie than cannot be put back in the bottle.
When the army last stepped in, to overthrow Thaksin in 2006, it faced a year of international opprobrium before handing over power to a non-elected civilian government. Several waves of domestic unrest followed, culminating in massive street protests in 2010 by Thaksin supporters called “Red Shirts,” which the military quashed at the cost of 99 dead in the streets of Bangkok. That unrest only abated when democratic elections swept Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to power in 2011. Then, as now, the message should have been clear—democracy is the only way forward for a deeply divided Thailand.
Thailand’s generals are heeding anachronistic calls to protect a more traditional, centralized political structure. They now claim that they will hold power only long enough to reform the system, echoing the demands made by anti-government protesters for six months. But reform how? The military oversaw the crafting of a new constitution in 2007 that was intended to temper the power of a populist leader like Thaksin and strengthen the hand of the country’s traditional political and judicial elites. Those fail-safes managed to oust Yingluck from power earlier this month, but they could not prevent Pheu Thai’s convincing election victories in 2011 and again this February.
No matter how many reforms the military tries to institute, if it genuinely intends to return Thailand to a democracy, it will be returning it to one in which Pheu Thai or some successor wins. And that party will remain unacceptable to the middle- and upper-class Thais in Bangkok and their constituents in the south who believe their interests are fundamentally aligned with the old system.
By seizing power, the military has reduced the likelihood of holding elections in the near term. This will stoke Red Shirt frustration and heighten the risk of violence. The army clearly knows this, as one of its first moves after seizing power was to send in troops to disperse Red Shirt crowds gathered in the outskirts of Bangkok. Recent history suggests that those crowds will not stay dispersed. Military leaders should also understand the risks involved in this coup, including potentially undercutting support for the military’s role in Thai society and the strength of vital national institutions.
For the United States, the coup reveals a humbling reality and hard choices. Although Thailand is a long-standing treaty ally, there is little the U.S. government or other friends can do to try to mitigate the risk of violence and bring Thailand back to a democratic path. Only Thais can resolve this historic political crisis.
It will be impossible for Washington to get it completely right this time, and either way some Thais will view it as another strike against the United States. Many in Thailand remain disappointed with the U.S. response to the Asian financial crisis of 1998. In addition, many of Thaksin’s supporters feel that the United States sat idly by during the 2006 coup. Now, if Washington declares this a coup, it is sure to upset friends in the Thai military and among the Bangkok establishment. If it does not, it will infuriate the Red Shirts.
Domestic legislation bars the United States from giving support to a foreign military that has overthrown a democratically elected government. Washington might have been willing to give Thailand’s generals the benefit of the doubt when they declared martial law earlier this week, but now the administration has little choice but to call a coup a coup. The United States did so in 2006, cutting off military sales, funds for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism training, and support through the International Military Education and Training program. Now it must stick to its principles and do so again.
But Washington should understand that a humble and nuanced approach is best. It should seek opportunities to connect with Thais, strengthen that country’s institutions, and not lose track of the long-term U.S. interest in having Thailand as a strong, stable partner in Asia. This crisis will eventually end with the empowerment of Thais to again choose their own government. With that in mind, Washington should remain consistent in its commitment to democracy and human rights.
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. Mr. Gregory B. Poling is a Fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @GregPoling.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.