Above: From Bangkok Post, 1991 – Coup leader Suchinda “wais” the skeleton of democracy.
The last time a coup chief became prime minister after a return to democracy
Warnings of bloodshed if a coup leader is appointed as prime minister, particularly from Red Shirts, have been going on since it became clear that the present junta intends to remain in control of the government after elections. Even Bloomberg warns of the possibility of “discord” leading to “bloody protests” perhaps without knowing what this all refers to or who they are really speaking for.
The warnings of bloodshed refer back to events in 1992 when a similar circumstance—a junta head managing to become un elected prime minister after elections—plunged the country into turmoil.
The 1991 coup that preceded these events was ultimately an opportunistic attempt by the military to claim a piece of the increasing political and economic power of Thailand which was one of the rising “Asian tigers” in the region at the time.
The Chatchai-led government that was overthrown at the time was the first government that had ever taken the reins of power from another in a peaceful transfer after an election. There was little doubt though that the Chatchai government was corrupt on a level in keeping with the politics of the 1980s when business interests were put before everything else.
The 1991 coup was conducted under the cover of the first Gulf War meaning that international news of the putsch was nearly lost in the flood of stories about the unprecedented invasion of Iraq.
The next year, when it was revealed that a block of MPs was supporting the installation of junta leader Gen. Suchinda as prime minister, it led to general alarm. Thais then feared a military-drafted constitution and senate composed of military men. There was a slowly growing expectation that democratic rule should take hold in Thailand as the end of the Cold War was leading to a blossoming of democracies around the world.
When Gen. Suchinda broke his pledge not to enter politics and was appointed prime minister, it triggered prolonged protests in Bangkok, a protest blockade on Rachadamneorn Avenue, and a standoff with soldiers. The protest was spearheaded by what the local press termed the “mobile phone mob” or “hand phone mob.” This referred to the emerging Thai middle class who had the resources to own mobile phones and who had become politically active. Eventually the military cleared the protest in a bloody crackdown that became known as Black May.
The events of the time led directly to events today. The resulting impunity for the military’s actions in Black May resulted in the 1997 People’s Constitution. This new charter attempted to separate both the military and monarchy from politics by creating independent authorities to serve as checks on the elected governments (as opposed to the military and monarchy having to serve as checks on the perceived overreach of elected officials, mostly in the most dire circumstances). It also reformed the rules of parliament to make sitting governments more stable and thus prevent non-elected influences from causing parties and coalitions making up governments to become unstable.
The system did work for a time (see: Remembering Thai Dreams of Checks and Balances). However, a stable government that the charter later created, led by the Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, worked ceaselessly to dismantle the independent checks and balances in the constitution, triggering strife that still haunts politics today as well as igniting an often reactionary opposition to both Thaksin and democracy itself. (see: Cleaning Up)
The present Prayuth-led military junta set their own standards for rule, defining themselves early on as selfless and patriotic rulers, unlike elected party politicians with their vested interests. After enduring a series of embarrassing scandals, the military demonstrated they had little will to impose any sort of ethical standards upon themselves, thus badly sullying their rule in the public eye.
It has been obvious since the latest 2014 coup that the junta intends to stay in power after elections to stymie Thaksin’s ceaseless political ambitions. To those who oppose Thaksin, he is a known quantity, and based on his actions while in office (and afterwards), an election that returns him to power is the greatest danger to Thai democracy.
Writing such thoughts just 10 years ago, if only to acknowledge this way of thinking about elections does exist, always elicited a wave of disapproval—particularly from Western readers. Elections were once the broadest definition to many that a laudable modern process was taking place. In recent years though, the repeated election of figures like Putin, the rulers of Venezuela, and even Donald Trump seems to have tempered faith in elections as the ultimate arbiter of fairness and progress. Indeed, Thailand’s present “hybrid” or even fake democracy takes politics back to a time where “authority” was valued as highly as the politician. (See also: Thailand’s Half Democracy)
Above: Phone booth graffiti from Black May 1992: “Prime Minister must come election only. Suchinda you are dictator.”
We can assume another handy win for Thaksin-controlled parties. But what about the 250 senate votes in the military’s pocket? The narrative is already being floated in the Thai-language press that it would be impossible for the appointed senate to vote against the prevailing will of the voters to block the party with the biggest win from power. (see also: The fear of an elected senate)
However, the junta does intend to remain in power. It would be inconceivable for yet another military intervention—initially only meant to block Thaksin’s threat to Thai system—to again fail and result in another puppet government controlled from afar to return to power. It is also clear that the military is relishing control of the nation’s purse strings with their funding of military dream projects such as their submarine fleet (a rebirth of the submarine corps that were disbanded after the navy’s participation in the failed Manhattan Rebellion in the 1950s).
After elections, pressure will be put on parties like the Democrats (see also: Who will come crawling?) to join with junta parties to give the new government a veneer of public approval (especially if Thaksin-connected parties win big).
It is possible that a drawn-out, indecisive stalemate might result which would be designed to allow for academics to call for a coalition government to form to restore business confidence. The resulting coalition government would still be intended to mute Thaksin’s political reemergence. Expect predictions of outrage, and thus blood, to be ramped up in the weeks after the election.
Thaksin has demonstrated he should never be counted out, but as I have written earlier, the prevailing issue in a post-Thaksin, post-election world will be (and already is) “what is the proper scope and limits of the military in civilian government?”
While Thaksin has been a unique irritant to the Thai system for a certain season, the question of the military in Thai politics seems to be an eternal question.
Also: 1992 Uprising Activists Protest Unelected PM Charter Clause – khaosodenglish.com, March 24, 2015
More on Thaksin’s fear of Prayuth: Thaksin’s Fear of the Eastern Tigers
2Bangkok.com Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.