A Siamese Tragedy

Mar 06

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

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

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

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. One of the two leading candidates for the premiership,
Surayud Chulanont, is a former Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
The other is a civilian. That is not necessarily a virtue, since most
previous civilian prime ministers appointed by the military have been
weak politicians, whose tenures were marked by responsiveness to their
military overseers. The civilian being eyed by the generals will most
likely follow in this tradition of pliability. Supachai Panitchpakdi, a
leading candidate, was a weak director general of the World Trade
Organization, who was overly responsive to the developed country agenda
rather than to the interests of developing countries. In 1997-98, he
was also deputy premier in the second Chuan government that rigorously
followed the IMF program that proved so devastating for the country. At
the time, he admitted at an interview: "We have lost our autonomy, our
ability to deterine our macroeconomic policy. This is unfortunate."
Such a record does not inspire confidence that he is a person that can
stand up to the military and other power centers in the country.

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?

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