Thailand's Reverse Revolution

Angry elites target democracy.

Thailand continues its slow-motion political implosion. The prime minister has been ousted and a new election has been scheduled for July 20, but the latter will settle nothing unless traditional ruling elites are willing to accept a government run by their opponents. If not, the country risks a violent explosion.

Bangkok’s politics have long leaned authoritarian. Once ruled by an absolute monarchy, Thailand has periodically suffered under military rule. Democracy finally re-emerged two decades ago. Nevertheless, the 1997 constitution created institutions of establishment control, such as the Constitutional Court. The monarchy retains outsize (though indirect) influence, and is generally allied with top business and political leaders.

But in 2001, telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra disrupted the system. Campaigning as a populist, he won the votes of Thailand’s neglected rural poor to become prime minister. Those accustomed to ruling were horrified.

Thaksin won again in 2005. Instead of figuring out how to better appeal to the popular majority, his opponents organized the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy which launched protests to topple his government. The resulting confrontation gave the military an excuse to oust the traveling Thaksin in 2006. The military regime tried him in absentia for alleged corruption and rewrote the constitution before calling new elections.

However, Thaksin’s successor party won a plurality and dominated the resulting coalition.

Thaksin’s opponents, who predominated in Bangkok, launched a wave of demonstrations, blocked Bangkok streets, besieged parliament, surrounded government buildings, and even took over Bangkok’s international airport. The security agencies refused to defend the government and the opposition-controlled courts ousted parliamentarians, including one prime minister, on dubious grounds. Establishment interests then pressured coalition partners to flip to the so-called Democrat Party (DP), which had not won an election since 1992.

When United Front for Democracy (so-called “Red Shirt”) Thaksin supporters flooded into Bangkok to protest the de facto coup, DP Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva no longer supported the people’s right to protest. The military conveniently decided that order must be maintained. The government killed scores and injured thousands of demonstrators, and imprisoned numerous opposition leaders.

But Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, and her Pheu Thai party won an absolute majority in the 2011 election. So the PAD morphed into the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former DP Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, one of those responsible for the 2010 killings. He demanded elimination of the “Thaksin regime” and organized mobs, which worked full-time to drive Yingluck from office. Their tactics, designed to prevent the government from functioning, reflected a mindset reminiscent of Benito Mussolini and his infamous Black Shirts. Recently Suthep called on the military to “stand by the people” and stage a coup.

In response, Prime Minister Yingluck called new elections, which further angered the opposition. The DP complained that the February poll would be “unfair.” More honestly, opposition activists admitted that they would lose. DP parliamentarian Theptai Seanapong said, “We cannot beat them.” Suthep turned his mobs loose on Election Day, blocking many Thais from voting. His attacks left enough constituencies unfilled to prevent the new parliament from taking office.

In March, the Constitutional Court effectively backed Suthep by invalidating the entire election because its opponents had prevented Thais from voting. Yingluck remained caretaker prime minister with only limited power to govern. Now the Constitutional Court has ousted her over the attempted reassignment of a government official. Suthep and his allies hope to use this ruling to force the installation of a compliant, unelected prime minister.

But leaders of the Red Shirts promised to respond violently to any judicial coup. In March, a former military officer and top Red Shirt threatened to march on the capital with 200,000 armed “guards” if Yingluck was deposed.

In the past, the widely respected king was able to transcend party factions, but he is aged and largely disengaged, while other members of the court have backed Suthep. In contrast, the Crown Prince is thought to lean toward Thaksin.