Why Does Thailand Have So Many Coups?

May 22, 2014

Thailand has a beloved king. The country has had one of the more prosperous economies in Asia. It’s a magnet for Western tourists. It’s history is largely peaceful. By most measures, Thailand has been very successful.

So why has the country now had a dozen coups, plus many more attempted coups, since it ended its absolute monarchy and became a constitutional monarchy in 1932?

The country is so coup-prone that Wednesday’s military takeover marked the second time in eight years the armed forces have ousted a leader from the same family.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed Wednesday, suffered the same fate as her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006.

In their cases, both are considered political outsiders who aren’t part of the traditional elite that dominate in Bangkok and other southern parts of the country. The brother and sister built support with populist appeals to the poorer and more rural Thais in the north of the country. Their rise was seen as a threat to many powerful, entrenched interests, including the military.

But this addresses only the most recent coups. There are websites that debate exactly how many actual and attempted coups Thailand has had. Answer: Somewhere between 20 to 30.

A Strong Role For The Military

The country might have been subjected to even more if not for the fact that the military has ruled for extended periods. For example, the military took over from a civilian government in 1947 and remained in power until 1973.

Thailand’s propensity for coups stems largely from the fact that the military has always played a leading role in politics and democracy has never really taken root.

When Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared martial law on Tuesday, he cited the Martial Law Act of 1914 that gives the armed forces “superior power” during times of crisis.

The military also claimed Tuesday that this was not a coup, a pronouncement greeted with instant skepticism. Sure enough, a coup came two days later.

The military argues that in this case, as in the past, it is acting within Thai law and tradition. The military claims the goal is to restore stability and not to take the country in a radically different direction.

However, many critics disagree, saying the military simply wanted to get rid of a leader it could not tolerate. The army intervened this time after six months of political gridlock and street protests involving supporters and opponents of Yingluck.

Coups With Distinctive Traits

The very notion of a coup tends to bring to mind a weak, impoverished, dysfunctional state. Many African nations and Latin American countries were plagued by coups in years past. And military takeovers can sometimes involve deep ideological struggles, with a right-wing military forcing out a left-wing leader.

Yet in Thailand, these general features tend not to hold. Rather, Thai coups seem to have their own distinctive traits.

The king is a stabilizing force: No matter how much Thai politicians quarrel among themselves, or with the military, no one criticizes King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His elevated status has allowed him to largely stand above the fray and encourage rival factions to work out their differences.

But the king is now 86 and frail. His son, the crown prince, is much less popular, raising questions about what role the monarchy will play this time and in the future.

They are usually bloodless: As with many previous coups, Wednesday’s takeover occurred without a shot being fired. The military is by far the most powerful force in the country and can seize power without any serious challenge.

Thailand’s unrest this time has not escalated to the level of widespread violence, let alone civil war.

There have, however, been some notable exceptions. The most recent was in 2010, when troops opened fire on Thaksin supporters who had been occupying Bangkok’s commercial center and refused to leave. When it was over, dozens were dead.

The military hands back power: The Thai military does many of the usual things that armies do when they seize power. It bans or restricts public gatherings, carries out searches and detains suspects. Television channels were cut off Wednesday, except for a screen shot that included a clunky English translation from the “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council.”

The expectation is that the military will call the shots until it feels the country is ready for civilian politicians to take over again.

But this time, as in the past, no one knows exactly when that will be.

Greg Myre is the international editor for NPR.org. You can follow him @gregmyre1

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