Back in the early 00s, it was Thaksin Shinawatra’s world.
When Thaksin took office in 2001, his policies took Thailand by storm. The country was able to pay back its IMF debt two years ahead of schedule, loans were given to villages across Thailand, and citizens could receive healthcare with just 30 baht (less than $1). With the success of his populist policies, Thaksin’s popularity soared.
Riding a wave of support, when the December 2004 Tsunami hit Thailand at the start of campaigning for an upcoming general election, Thaksin turned crisis into opportunity as he toured disaster zones.
But he was also growing unpopular amongst some due to a perceived lack of transparency and abuse of power. At that time, Thailand had not experienced a military coup for 15 years – the longest period of stability since the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But the anti-Thaksin currents swelled, and on 19 September 2006 Thaksin’s wave crashed to the shore as the military moved and ousted his government.
When the generals overthrew the civilian government and imposed a junta, in 2006 and once again in 2014, the dramatic events seemed merely the latest additions to a never-ending cycle of military coups in Thailand that has persisted throughout the 20th century.
But while one among many, the significance of that 2006 coup cannot be overstated.
The events of that year proved the catalyst for a series of events that has led us to the current political unrest in Thailand, reasserting the military’s iron-hand control over Thai politics that has survived largely unhindered to this day. Though the current movement has moved away from Thaksin and the coloured shirts that once dominated Thai politics, they remain constituent parts of the same wider struggle for democracy.
This link between past and present is not lost on the current cohort of pro-democracy protestors filling the streets of Bangkok. Marking the fourteenth anniversary of the 2006 coup, a demonstration set to be held at Thammasat University by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration on September 19 could mark the direction of Thailand’s political future yet again, including whether the country is set to move towards greater democratic or military governance.
Reflecting on Thailand’s political history since 2006, Eakpant Pindavanija, acting director of the Institute for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, lamented these blurred lines between the Thai military and political spheres.
Eakpant said the acceptance of human rights violations by excessive military force had been a feature of Thai society for generations, and accepted by large sections of the population.
“In the past century, since Thailand has been transformed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, we still can see more than 20 coups,” he told the Globe. “We have a handful of military people who have the mentality that they are involved or deeply involved in politics.”
Pre-existing political conflict has helped set the stage for military intervention and made each coup appear largely bloodless and justified to the public eye. These dynamics have become entrenched over time, cementing the role of the military in Thai politics.
It’s always, ‘this government is corrupt,’ every justification is always based upon that, or ‘they can’t get the country moving’ … So the army generals act like a white horse trying to civilise, and they say corruption happened
The 2006 coup that overthrew prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was a culmination of street demonstrations organised by the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, dissatisfied with Thaksin’s purported cronyism and corruption scandals whilst in office. As the demonstrations escalated, the military, seen to be led by the chairman of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda, staged a coup d’etat.
Street demonstrations against the government in office, followed by armed forces and military intervention, has become a recurring piece of the pattern of power change in Thai politics.
Sean Boonpracong, national security advisor from 2011-2014 for the Yingluck Shinawatra government – itself overthrown by a military coup in 2014 – said that corruption has often been a reason provided by the military as justification for the many coups in Thai history.
“It’s always, ‘this government is corrupt,’ every justification is always based upon that, or ‘they can’t get the country moving’,” Boonpracong told the Globe. “So the army generals act like a white horse trying to civilise, and they say corruption happened.”
Back in 2006, and for more than a decade after, Thailand’s political schism was drawn between two factions: the Red Shirt pro-Thaksin supporters, and the Yellow Shirt, royalist-aligned Thaksin opponents.
However, in the years since, the relevance of what were once Thailand’s two largest political groups has waned significantly, and the 2019 general election saw the rise of Future Forward and Palang Pracharath – newly formed political parties occupying the left and right on the political spectrum.
Last year, of the 500 lower house seats up for grabs, Future Forward gained 81 and Palang Pracharath gained 116. A further 250 seats were installed through a military-appointed Senate, a feature of Thailand’s military-drafted 2017 constitution.
Palang Pracharat, a military-affiliated party, rose in late 2018, while the progressive Future Forward Party, led by charismatic young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and co-founder Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, emerged in March that year. The two, at odds on the role of the military in Thai politics, fast supplanted the long-established Red-Yellow shirt divide.
Though the groupings have shifted, the same polarisation in politics has remained, Boonpracong explained, with votes for Pheu Thai and the Democrat party merely shifting to Palang Pracharath and Future Forward.
But while the political agenda of the Future Forward Party – now rebranded as the Move Forward Party after the constitutional court disbanded the original party for what it claimed were financial irregularities – aligns closely with the ongoing youth-led protests, the party does not share the same direct relationship with protestors as Thaksin’s Red Shirts once did.
While politicians of the Pheu Thai party often appeared on stage leading the Red Shirts, with some accounts saying movement was funded by these politicians, the Move Forward leaders do not have the same level of participation. Eakpant pointed to the differences, noting that this is because the party positions itself in such a way to show that they don’t influence Thailand’s current pro-democracy movement, he said.
“You will never see them on the stage. So we see the affiliations of these two political parties and their supporters are different in this mentality. It doesn’t mean they don’t support the movement, but they have a certain way of affiliating themselves with their supporters. It shows that Move Forward doesn’t have any influence on the movement.”
But though the approach may be different, the same tension between conservatives and progressives in Thailand remains. Add to that a trend over the past fourteen years of an ever-increasing military presence – something the current youth-led, pro-democracy movement is rallying against.
Millennials and post-millenials, Eakpant said, are able to access information beyond school curriculums and are challenging the tacit acceptance of the military’s right to be involved in Thai politics.
“They have new means of communication and assessing information, so they have been getting information apart from what they have installed by the hypocritical education system of Thailand,” he said.
Still, the movement on the street requires interaction with the political system in order to create real change, notes Eakpant. Rallying for reform of the 2017 constitution is underway, with amendment drafts proposed and awaiting discussion in parliament. The first is a public draft backed with over 70,000 signatures in a petition led by NGO iLaw, the second tabled by opposition political parties.
The planned September 19 demonstration and its immediate aftermath may offer some indication of which direction Thailand will move in the near future – greater democracy or military influence. For what it’s worth, on 9 September prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha dismissed the possibility of another military coup to quell unrest. But with Thailand experiencing 13 successful military coups since 1932, some with more straight-forward justifications than others, it remains to be seen if that option is truly off the table.
“A rational justification for having a coup is not possible right now, but to have it irrationally, things can happen all the time,” said Eakpant. “Because military coups in Thailand, a logical justification is not required to stage a coup.”