If public opinion is divided on the 2014 military intervention, there is no debate that the 2006 action only worsened matters
There is nothing to celebrate on the 11th anniversary of the 2006 military coup, but Thais – and particularly the elite – need to search their souls and decide whether military intervention in politics can truly bring about peace or prosperity.
Thailand has always been a relatively peaceful country and normally enjoys economic success. It is one of most prosperous economies in Asia and a magnet for visitors from around the world, not just in terms of tourism but also business, trade and investment.
But Thailand has also endured more coups than any other country in Asia. The most recent ones had the effect, in foreign observers’ eyes, of turning the Land of Smiles into the land of coups. They have replaced prosperous democracy with a sluggish economy under oppressive authoritarian rule.
Military coups have never managed to end the vicious partisan cycles that characterise Thai politics, and in fact create their own damnable cycles, one coup leading to another. The one on September 19, 2006, that toppled the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra proved that military intervention cannot resolve political conflict. It merely continues them.
When then-Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin brought down Thaksin’s government, he was acting on behalf of the established elite, embodied by the yellow-shirt movement led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul. The opposition was handed the reins of power, soon blundered, and was out of office in a year. The next election delivered a proxy Thaksin regime.
What the coup leaders and the elite failed to fully recognise was the effect that Thaksin’s populist policies were having on the lower classes, to which wealth had finally begun trickling down. “Thaksinomics” was a success for the country as a whole and gave the less privileged the opportunity to join the middle class. It empowered them politically, too, so much so that the red-shirt movement arose to counter the vociferous yellow shirts. The red wave carried the People Power Party to victory in the 2007 election.
The elite alliance – the military, the Democrat Party and the urban middle class – discovered that the 2006 coup had been a waste, failing to end Thaksin’s influence and in fact strengthening the upcountry masses. The alliance found a way to remove the People Power government on a technicality, sparking a major red-shirt uprising in 2010. With the Democrats back in office, the red shirts’ protest rallies ended in bloodshed, nearly 100 lives lost, including military personnel.
Almost inevitably, the Democrats lost the 2011 election that brought Yingluck Shinawatra to power. Another coup was deemed necessary, and it came in May 2014, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, now prime minister. The next election is vaguely scheduled for late 2018. There is no plan in place for bridging the political gulf.
For advocates of democracy, two coups in less than a decade can only be dismaying, but the conservative elite have grown comfortable with military intervention as a means to silence the popular voice and prevent another Thaksin comeback. The common argument that coups curtail corruption is nonsense. Quite the opposite is true. Authoritarian rule is opaque and allows for more corruption. In a genuine democracy, nothing is hidden.