Approving a sprawling amnesty bill before dawn on the 1st of November 2013, Thailand’s House of Representatives unwittingly sowed the seeds for the country’s eighteenth (the most used number) coup d’état since 1932. Critics and supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government together streamed onto the streets: the former appalled by what they saw as an attempt to clear the Prime Minister’s brother’s name from corruption charges, while the latter were outraged by the idea that those responsible for deaths during the 2010 crackdown on protests would walk uncontested.
Opposition members resigned to lead the protests, shaping the so-called ‘Yellow Shirts’ into a concerted anti-government force. As these Yellow Shirts accused Yingluck of serving as a political puppet for her brother (Thaksin Shinawatra, overthrown in a 2006 coup and voluntary expatriate seeking to elude Thai justice) and of abusing executive dominance, supporters of the Shinawatra politicians—mostly low-class urbanites and individuals from the countryside—coalesced under the umbrella of the ‘United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship’ (often referred to as the ‘Red Shirts’). Grossly speaking, the populist practices characterizing the Shinawatras’ time in office attracted the poorer masses of Thailand, while the pro-monarchy military officials and urban elite lobbed allegations of corruption and cronyism. Both tensions and stakes rose as the two sides clashed, culminating with the Red Shirts threatening to trigger a civil war if their Shinawatra champion was undemocratically removed from office a second time.
Near March, two legal hurdles with the potential to cancel her rule were presented to Yingluck: charges linked to a corrupt rice-subsidizing scheme the government had failed to sustainably maintain, and accusations of nepotism tied to Yingluck’s alleged brother-in-law (the familial relation being murky) replacing a senior security official in 2011. While the first has affected over 1.4 million rice farmers, pushing many to bankruptcy or suicide, it was the allegations of nepotism that convinced the Constitutional Court to remove ten officials, including the Prime Minister, from office on the 7th of May.
Roughly a fortnight later, the Royal Thai Army (RTA) imposed military law across the nation in an alleged attempt to smother the momentum of the protests. Many saw this as an ominous omen of the coup that came two days (22nd of May) later, given the clashes were taking place almost exclusively in the capital.
This move has been recognized as a biased transition by many, namely because the two bodies instrumental in Yingluck’s downfall—the courts and the army—are largely seen as operating in opposition to the Shinawatra family. The military junta has admitted that it regarded the Shinawatra family as being responsible for creating a rift in Thai society, and hence needed to be removed in order to heal the nation.
This explanation ignores the fact that Thailand’s coup-prone condition by far predates the Shinawatra politicians. Taken from this site (the date boxes and the vertical black lines are mine), the graph to the left shows the evolution of the budget allocated to the Thai military. As one can easily observe, the percentage of national GDP used for military purposes rises sharply following military coups—almost doubling, going from 85.93 billion baht in 2006 to 170.17 billion in 2009.
Simultaneously, one can observe a rise in corruption or in ‘extra-lawfulness’ when a civilian government is ousted by the military. According to the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index, Thailand fell from the 54th percentile in 2005 to the 43rd in 2007. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index measured the drop comparatively, falling from 59th place worldwide to 84th between the same dates.
To add to this quantitative evidence, qualitative ‘proofs’: following the 2006 coup (as in 1991), high-ranking army officials were shoehorned into the seats of company leaders, benefitting from the governmental contracts subsequently funneled towards these companies; most appointed Senators from 2007 (previous to the 2006 coup, all Senators were indirectly elected) had ties to the military; 2006’s junta leader managed to, despite laws forbidding it, obtain land for construction inside a national park reserve; and, in 2009 (past the return to democratic rule), the military purchased almost 20 million dollars of machinery incapable of functioning.
While accusations of corruption justify and underpin the coup d’état, history has consistently seen military rule usher in purposeful mismanagement of state funds. There is little reason to believe this time will be any different.
There is little reason to believe there will not be another coup in the somewhat near future, either; the social rift leading to this intervention was spawned by opposition between a weak pro-Shinawatra majority, the rural poor and those from the countryside, and a strong pro-monarchy minority. No military intervention can permanently ease those divisions, and the kind of brutal military crackdown needed to repress dissent for generations does not mesh with the RTA’s behavior in the past decade. Furthermore, the current king is expected to soon be succeeded by his son, seen as a playboy unworthy of respect wooed over by Thaksin. If the revered monarchy loses the impartial power that has allowed it to calm tensions before, Thai society will only be rocked harder in the coming years.
Given the military will be even more empowered given the probable budget raise, and that the pro-Shinawatra protesters are likely to be energized by the new king’s support, the next coup d’état—likely less than a decade away—may surpass Thailand’s Black May as deadliest protests.