Here’s a Great Lesson Why It’s Best to Keep the Military Out of Politics
The Thai military has carried out 12 coups since 1932—and those are just the successful ones
For the second time in a decade and for the dozenth time since the 1930s, the Thai military has successfully overthrown an elected government.
“In order to run the country smoothly, [the military has] suspended the constitution of 2007, except for the chapter on the monarchy,” Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s senior military commander, said during a televised broadcast on Thursday.
While the coup is surprising, it’s not exactly shocking. In recent months, the country has been beset by a paralyzing political crisis involving the unpopular ruling Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The government’s unpopularity and inability to deal with a political crisis aside, it’s never a good idea for generals to throw their weight around in domestic affairs. Thailand is a good example why.
But first, let’s sum up what happened to bring on the coup. One of the immediate precipitating causes include the boycott of February elections by the opposition yellow shirts—a powerful faction in Thailand’s richer and urban south.
By contrast, the government relied on a base of support in the country’s poorer, northern regions. Their supporters are known as the red shirts.
Months of unrest and violent protests caused the situation to deteriorate to the point that Thailand’s economy began to feel the pain. On May 7, the Constitutional Court removed Shinawatra’s powers. On May 20, the military declared martial law. On May 22, the generals formally declared a coup.
“The generals say it’s an apolitical measure ‘to keep peace and order’ and prevent an escalation of the situation, while the beleaguered caretaker government has cautiously welcomed the move,” Michael Peel wrote in the Financial Times. “But the military’s critics see this is part of a carefully orchestrated gradual coup by the country’s traditional establishment.”
Thailand is particularly prone to coups. It’s had 18 since 1932, 12 of them successful if we’re counting the latest. Before that, the military toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra—Yingluck’s older brother—in 2006.
As Max Fisher pointed out last year, there are several broad reasons why this happens so often. Thailand’s successive governments typically include a mix of authoritarian and democratic features, for one.
The political opposition can also deliberately plan to escalate a crisis to the point where the military steps in, hoping to make out with some of the proceeds. Thailand is not a rich country. At the same time, it’s not colossally poor by global standards.
But the Thai military also plays a different role in Thai society that’s more similar to Egypt—or much of Latin America during the 20th century—than most Americans or Western Europeans might be familiar with. Add all these factors up, and you have a recipe for lots of coups.
In many countries, the military mainly influences decisions involving national security. When the military is divided into several branches, it competes for a share of military spending. The military branches check each other, but they are also subordinated to the civilian branches of government.
In Thailand, the military effectively acts as another branch of government. Its generals take on some attributes of politicians, and political success for a civilian leader relies in part on cultivating allies within the military.
There’s another problem. When the military serves as another branch of government, the only thing checking its power is its own restraint. The military has the guns and tanks, after all.
While the revolving door of former military officers to senior posts at defense firms is a finely crafted tradition in the United States, this extends in Thailand to major domestic industries such as the country’s state-owned energy company. This means the military has a stake in the economic fortunes of the country in a much more directly personal way.
This rule could be summed up as: If the economy tanks, send in the tanks. As William Pesek of Bloomberg noted, the coup comes just a day after the release of ugly economic data showing Thailand’s economic actually shrank this year.
But Thailand has such a long tradition of the military playing a role in domestic affairs—and a proud martial culture reflected in its still-sizable army of more than 200,000 serving troops—that it’s difficult to stop the generals’ occasional toppling of elected governments.
Sure, the military will likely hand over ostensible control to a civilian government in a few months or a year. But there’s no guarantee this process won’t repeat itself in a few years hence.
The repeated coups also end up causing more problems than they solve. “This action will only exacerbate the economic fallout as automakers, apparel companies and beach goers write off Thailand,” Pesek wrote.
That’s bad for the long term. The generals won’t drive Thailand into becoming absolutely destitute. But they’ll help ensure the country stays where it is. If the supporters of the deposed government fight back, there could also be a bloodbath.