Ballots, Bullets and Bullies: Thailand's So-Called Democracy

Ballots, Bullets and Bullies: Thailand's So-Called Democracy

If history repeats itself, the new Thai prime minister should watch her back.


The Thai people have voted. The crony populists decisively defeated the establishment thugs. It probably was the best outcome among imperfect choices.

Thailand has been in various stages of political crisis for years. The only good news is that while Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, even the worst political chaos there affects no vital American interest. Long-term stability will come only if the country’s ruling elite is willing to cede power to the disaffected and heretofore neglected rural majority.


The Thai monarchy was made famous by “The King and I” and lost its absolute power seventy-nine years ago. In recent years, parliamentary democracy and powerful army have uneasily coexisted: over the years there have been eleven coups, seven attempted coups, twenty-three military governments, and nine military-dominated regimes. Helping provide political stability was King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a widely revered figure able to call even military rulers to account.

This system is breaking down, however. The king is eighty-three and has been hospitalized since late 2009. The crown prince enjoys little of the respect accorded his father and some Thai citizens have proposed bypassing him for his sister or even jumping to one of his young sons.

Moreover, a decade ago a frustrated rural majority rallied behind billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra to overthrow the country’s cozy political establishment. Thaksin promised to share the wealth, winning elections—and, it was charged, growing wealthier himself—in return. He became prime minister in 2001, only to be ousted in a coup in 2006.

Unfortunately, King Bhumibol has been increasingly unable to intervene even if he was inclined to act. Worse, the courtiers surrounding him and the queen allied themselves with the military and other elites. The judiciary also was firmly in establishment hands, an important factor where political outcomes often are determined by judges.

With Thaksin living in Dubai to avoid prison, the military rewrote the constitution to restrict the power of elected officials—not to protect the people, like the original U.S. Constitution, but to safeguard the ruling coalition of royalists, businessmen, military officers, and bureaucrats. They relied on the misnamed Democrat Party as their political vehicle. However, Thaksin’s successor party won a plurality of seats in the 2007 vote and formed a coalition government.

The courts then disqualified a succession of pro-Thaksin parliamentarians, parties, and prime ministers on dubious charges—one of the latter, for instance, was ousted for being paid to host a televised cooking show. In contrast, the DP, which had not won even a plurality of the vote since 1992, received much kindlier treatment when charged with legal violations.

So-called “Yellow Shirt” demonstrators took over the prime minister’s office and international airport, demanding the government’s ouster and constitutional changes to disenfranchise the rural majority, and the army refused to restore order. Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws were largely deployed against Thaksin supporters—there were 164 cases in 2009 alone—as establishment forces charged him with planning to downgrade the monarchy. (Even foreigners, including an American blogger and an Australian novelist living in Thailand, have ended up behind bars for mild or indirect criticism of things royal.) Behind the scenes the court and army pressured coalition partners to switch sides, finally turning the government over to the Democrat Party.

As largely urban dwellers, the Yellow Shirts had an obvious advantage in organizing protests. But in 2009 and 2010 Thaksin loyalists, known as Red Shirts, managed to fill Bangkok, first to disrupt an ASEAN summit and later to shut down much of the financial district. The military conveniently decided that this time public demonstrations threatened Thailand’s security and bloodily evicted the protestors. At least 91 people died and more than 1800 were wounded; opposition leaders were prosecuted and imprisoned.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke of reconciliation while continuing to demonize the Red Shirts. Thaksin turned to his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to carry his banner for the Puea Thai Party in the July 3 election. She promised to increase the minimum wage, hike subsidies for the elderly, expand price supports, initiate tax relief and provide a host of other benefits. The normally more fiscally responsible DP responded accordingly, but populism lite offered little electoral appeal. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha staged a televised attack on the Puea Thai Party, but could not staunch the anger of Red Shirt activists.

The result was a decisive victory for 44-year-old Yingluck. Her party took 265 seats in a 500-member parliament, compared to just 159 for the DP. A party formed by the general who staged the 2006 coup won two seats.

Yingluck immediately moved to form a coalition with four smaller parties, giving her government nearly 299 seats. Strengthening her coalition makes it harder for opponents to again use the judiciary to win back political control. The electoral commission said it was investigating election violations which could lead to the disqualification of candidates—and no one expects an objective judgment.

The military promised to respect the election result. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said: “We are not going to intervene.” But leading officers disclaimed any interest in staging a coup before the last one. Activists opposed to Puea Thai’s victory have promised protests and in a majority of those polled by the Bangkok Post said they expect political violence in the future.

The putative prime minister faces an extraordinary challenge. The members of the frustrated and long-marginalized majority who voted for her expect a better future, even though her policies could wreck the government budget, business climate and national economy. Her brother hopes for an amnesty which would allow him to return home, a step which would enrage his opponents.

Dealing with the traditional ruling institutions accustomed to occupying the commanding heights of power likely will be even harder for Yingluck. Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies observed: “I think one of her biggest challenges is how to build a working relationship with the elite, particularly the military.” Indeed, Christophe Archambault, who covered Thailand for 17 years for Reuters, warned that her tenure could be short: “The establishment is likely to resort again to Yellow Shirt mob violence, a judicial intervention, or even another coup to unseat her. That will tear Thailand further apart.”

There is much scuttlebutt about the potential of striking a deal or even having struck a deal before the election to protect the military from prosecution for the 2006 coup and last year’s crackdown on the Red Shirts in return for accepting a Yingluck government. One can imagine the appeal to the Thaksin forces of such an arrangement.

But the incoming prime minister’s ultimate objective should be to strip establishment institutions of their ability to effectively invalidate elections when they don’t like the results. One young voter declared: “It’s been a so-called democracy, not a real democracy. This time I’d like the majority to decide the winner. I really want democracy to decide the outcome.”

Of course, confronting thuggish elites requires a firm government hand, strong political base, and steely personal nerves. A similar process took years in Turkey, in which the so-called Deep State dominated by the military and other elites used the courts and laws protecting the image of Turkey founder Kemal Attaturk to maintain their influence irrespective of election results. A Thai government that demonstrates economic success would be far better positioned to undertake far-reaching political reforms.

There’s not much Washington, which urged the outgoing government to respect the election result, or anyone else can do other than counsel caution, patience, reconciliation  and compromise. Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Institute of Security and International Studies observed: “We must take the long view. This is not a two-year or a three-year exercise. We are talking about two or three decades of political maturation to come. It will be many years before we can reconcile the old order and the new order.”

It’s not evident that either side in Thailand’s bitter political conflict is willing to take a long view of their nation’s transformation from old to new. If not, the Thai people will need all the good wishes they can get to manage the future.

Image by Nate Robert