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Why one of Asia’s most open societies keeps turning to military rule

As military coups go, Thailand’s putsch on May 22, 2014, was rather polite — no mass imprisonments, no stadiums full of students tortured and shot. The toppled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was detained for only three days. Before the coup, there had been months of street clashes between loyalist “red shirts” and opposition “yellow shirts,” and now General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta promised to “restore happiness to the people.”

There have since been some public protests against martial law. Students were arrested in Bangkok for flashing a three-finger salute copied from The Hunger Games, the novel and attendant movie about a rebellion against a fictional dictatorship. Modest three-finger student demonstrations have also taken place in Khon Kaen, a city in the rural northeast that is considered the main red-shirt stronghold. The salute is now banned in Thailand, as is public reading of George Orwell’s 1984. But so far, opposition to the junta has not found a popular voice — no great demonstrations, no acts of violence.

It is easy, under such relatively tranquil conditions, not to take Thailand and its coups entirely seriously. Military takeovers occur with some regularity there. Eight years before Yingluck Shinawatra was deposed, her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra — an ex-policeman who made a fortune in the cell phone business before being elected prime minister in 2001 — was similarly removed from office. There have been more than twenty coups or attempted coups in the past century. The most famous, which in 1932 forced the absolute monarchy of Thailand (then known as Siam) to accept a constitution, is commemorated by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument — something of a misnomer, since the memorial was commissioned in 1939 by Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the closest thing Thailand has had to a fascist dictator.

Soldiers stand near posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a demonstration against the recent military coup, at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, May 26, 2014 © Adam Ferguson/New York Times/Redux

Soldiers stand near posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a demonstration against the recent military coup, at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, May 26, 2014 © Adam Ferguson/New York Times/Redux

Many demonstrations have been held at this monument, often with fatal consequences. Protesters against the country’s military regimes were massacred in 1973, 1976, and 1992. Coups are usually bloodless in Thailand, but the protests that follow are not. That is one reason a putsch should be taken seriously, however common they have become. There is an edge of fear in Thai life now, though it is perhaps less noticeable in Bangkok, where the yellow shirts — backed by the army, the social elite, and the monarchy — have always dominated, than in the poorer and largely rural north and northeast.

In those areas, which were neglected by rulers in the past, people now feel they have been twice robbed of their legitimate government. Whatever his many faults, Thaksin listened to voters in rural Thailand and used his personal wealth and charisma to give them things they needed: nearly free health care, agricultural subsidies, and low-interest loans for farms and small businesses. Thaksin could hardly be classified as nouveau riche — his great-grandfather, a Chinese immigrant, amassed a fortune in business — but his family’s power base in Chiang Mai was far from Bangkok. After a career in the police, he became nationally prominent as a successful telecommunications entrepreneur who used his contacts in the army and the police to his advantage. Yet he never lost his provincial appeal; he knew how to talk to rural people. Under Thaksin and Yingluck, a new class of farmers and businessmen began to feel empowered. These days it looks to them as though the old Bangkok elite has struck back.

Members and supporters of the old red-shirt regime are now regularly hauled into army camps, where they are ordered to desist from political activity and from communication with reporters. Their families are threatened with repercussions if they disobey. Radio programs sympathetic to the red shirts have been taken off the air. Social-media messages are carefully scrutinized for signs of dissent. Each day schoolchildren are made to recite General Prayuth’s “twelve core values,” which stress obedience to the government and the monarch. Newspapers and television broadcasters are told to avoid anything that might “confuse the minds of the people,” a warning that is sufficiently vague to allow punishment at the junta’s whim.

Perhaps the most feared tool at the military rulers’ disposal is Section 112 of the criminal code: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” This, too, can be interpreted widely, and is often used to crush political opponents. Lèse-majesté can even apply to the long dead. Last October, a prominent intellectual named Sulak Sivaraksa was accused of defamation for casting doubt on a sixteenth-century Siamese royal battle against the Burmese king. He had supposedly insulted King Naresuan, who died in 1605.

There are more lèse-majesté cases pending now than ever before. In the six months after last year’s coup, eighteen people were charged with the crime, including two activists involved in a production of The Wolf Bride, a play about a fictional monarch. The charges are partly opportunistic, the sign of a nervous regime unsure of its legitimacy. But they also reflect high anxiety about royal succession. The much-admired King Bhumibol, whose authority has been invoked to defuse many political crises over his sixty-eight-year reign, is too ill to appear in public anymore, as is his wife, Queen Sirikit. The king allegedly gave his blessing to the junta, but little is known about his actual state of mind. His likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a capricious womanizer whose extravagant birthday celebration for his miniature poodle Foo Foo went viral on YouTube, is deeply unpopular. So the future authority of the royal institution is at stake. Contrary to the trend of previous coups, the current regime is not promising a quick return to civilian rule; one reason may be a wish to maintain control during a tricky succession, which could come rather soon.

Last year’s coup d’état received support from surprising quarters. As in Cairo, in 2013, when Mohamed Morsi’s democratically elected government was overthrown by the military, prominent members of the urban elite, some of them leftists who had struggled against military dictatorships all their lives, applauded the government’s downfall.

Thaksin had ruled as a billionaire populist in the mold of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or even Morsi, who took his popular mandate as a license to act like an autocrat. Thaksin made some highly questionable business deals while in office, practiced nepotism and cronyism, intimidated critics, and instituted a ruthless war on drugs that killed almost three thousand people, many of them innocent of any drug trafficking. When the military deposed him in 2006, Thaksin was accused of corruption and lèse-majesté for his quasi-monarchical behavior.

Red shirts on their way to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s house in Bangkok to demand that he dissolve the Thai parliament and hold new elections, April 12, 2010. Photograph © Agnès Dherbeys

Red shirts on their way to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s house in Bangkok to demand that he dissolve the Thai parliament and hold new elections, April 12, 2010. Photograph © Agnès Dherbeys

Thaksin fled the country in 2008 to avoid prison. Yingluck, his sister, was elected in 2011. She had a softer image, though she was widely seen as her brother’s puppet. Both were despised as vulgar, greedy upstarts by Bangkok’s middle and upper classes. But the Shinawatras were so popular among the rural populations of the north and northeast that more mainstream parties, such as the conservative, pro-free-market Democrat Party, were unable to beat them in elections.

Yingluck failed to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed her brother to come home, a measure strongly opposed by the yellow shirts. Even so, massive numbers of protesters, joined by high-society figures in Bangkok and allegedly backed by the palace, continued to paralyze the country by occupying streets and seizing government buildings. Their leader, a demagogue named Suthep Thaugsuban, promised a “people’s coup.” He later claimed that General Prayuth told him, not long before martial law was declared, that it was “the duty of the army to take over the task” from the demonstrating yellow shirts.

The recent death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew brought forth international praise for Singapore’s combination of economic liberalization and political authoritarianism. Across much of Asia — notably in Singapore, but also in Malaysia and Vietnam — democracy is disparaged by officials as a Western imposition to which Asians are not suited. Ironically, some of the most authoritarian laws in these former colonies — on political speech, say, or homosexuality — are the legacy of British rule. But Thailand was never colonized. And despite its difficulties in making democracy work, the nation was never a great promoter of so-called Asian values. Western ideas about government and social behavior were imported by the Thai elite, beginning with the nineteenth-century kings, and some of the country’s greatest modernizers were monarchs and generals. At the same time, this elite class has refused to let go of its privileges, convinced as it is that only the palace and the military can hold the nation together.

There is no doubt that the Shinawatra governments were corrupt, as more or less all Thai governments have been and continue to be. But is a coup really what people wanted, especially those who might have been among the students protesting the juntas in 1973, 1976, or 1992? If so, why? I landed in Bangkok in late November with these questions in mind, along with another, wider one: why does Thailand, which is in some ways the most open society in Southeast Asia, have such a hard time ridding itself of the scourge of military coups?

I went to see the photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom at his gallery in Bangkok. Manit’s photographs, which include street scenes and elaborate theatrical settings featuring Pink Man, a character dressed all in pink, form a satire of modern urban consumerism. Pink Man, who somewhat resembles the artist himself — round-faced, mustached, with rather Chinese features — is often depicted pushing a pink supermarket cart, a symbol of bourgeois materialism.

It didn’t take long for Manit to launch into a tirade against Thaksin and everything he stood for. Nobody wants a coup, he said, but Thaksin had forced the military’s hand. Words like “greed,” “corruption,” and “fraud” kept recurring in our conversation. Listening to Manit, you might conclude that Thaksin and his sister had turned a sleepy Buddhist country into a shopping-mall hell. “All that Thais do,” he said, “is shop, eat to excess, get fat, and die.”

Thaksin, he said, had promised everyone a car: “Now look at our traffic jams.” Thaksin “just wanted to get richer and richer and tricked the people with money.” This was a common yellow-shirt trope: rural people voted for Thaksin because they were paid to.

A clash between red shirts and the Thai army near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, April 10, 2010. Photograph © Agnès Dherbeys

A clash between red shirts and the Thai army near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, April 10, 2010. Photograph © Agnès Dherbeys

I recalled one of General Prayuth’s twelve core values, the one about “practicing the philosophy of sufficiency economy.” This has long been a staple of Thai military and royalist propaganda: common folks should be modest in their needs and wary of greedy businessmen seeking to corrupt them. Listening to Manit, I saw how this message might overlap with leftist anticapitalism: Thaksin as Pink Man.

The day after I visited the gallery, I went to see another old leftist, Kraisak Choonhavan. I first met Kraisak in 1978, at his house on Soi Rajakru, a leafy street that was home to some of Thailand’s most powerful people — including Kraisak’s father, General Chatichai Choonhavan, the prime minister from 1988 until 1991, when he was deposed in a coup. Kraisak’s grandfather, Field Marshal Phin Choonhavan, participated in several coups, notably in 1947 and 1951. His mother, Bunruen, is related to the Thai royal family.

At that first meeting Kraisak wore a sarong, the kind of garb only the poor would wear, or urban hippies. A graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, he had been up on all the latest articles in the New Left Review and other “progressive” journals. Piles of books about Third World problems and revolutionary politics had been stacked on his table. They are still there today. Now as then, Kraisak is a fervent opponent of social injustice and “Western imperialism,” a committed man of the left.

When his father became prime minister, Kraisak served as one of his political advisers. As a senator from 2000 to 2006, and later as deputy leader of the Democrat Party, Kraisak was a tireless critic of Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s governments, objecting to their corruption and human rights abuses. When the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticized the 2014 coup, Kraisak, a member of the group, begged to differ. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say that he supported the coup, but he told me that “in a way it was necessary.” He only wished that Yingluck could have been overthrown without it.

Was it true, I asked him, that the red–yellow divide was based on class, as many analysts have claimed — the Bangkok elite versus northern upstarts, the rich against the poor? Kraisak responded instantly: “Bullshit! That’s just bullshit.” He pointed out that labor unions as well as farmers had joined the protests against Yingluck. No, Thaksin was an oligarch, whose personal interests eclipsed the interests of the nation.

Kraisak was critical of his own party too. As a true leftist, he explained, he was an isolated figure in Bangkok. All the political parties were in thrall to oligarchs and big business. He said that as long as the gap between rich and poor kept growing, the patronage system would go on. Then he ventured: “Those with money, and the will to power, will win again. The Bangkok people won’t be happy.”

For a moment I thought he was talking about the rich and powerful elite to which he himself belonged. But it quickly became clear that he meant Thaksin, or leaders like Thaksin, who used their wealth to build up new power bases in rural areas and challenged the elites in Bangkok. In 2007, Kraisak had run for office in the northeast. He recalled that the Democrats were “absolutely no match” for Yingluck’s party: “Our only hope was to find evidence of the other side cheating, so that we might win by default.”

No wonder, then, that Kraisak is pessimistic about democracy in his country. Money is too corrupting. Democracy leads to dangerous populism. The red shirts had turned the north into a haven for gangsters. The streets were no longer safe. As with the caricature of the Pink Man, I had the feeling that what truly rankled was the emergence of a rising class outside Bangkok, one led by uncouth arrivistes whose greed and ambition repelled the leftist in Kraisak as well as the yellow-shirted aristocrat.

Not so long ago, Khon Kaen was nothing but a sleepy provincial town of wooden houses with corrugated-iron roofs. Now it has a newly expanded highway from the airport, flanked by a shopping mall and lined, curiously, with large model dinosaurs. (There had been a plan, it was later explained to me, to build a Jurassic park to attract tourists. It came to nothing.)

Since the coup, there has been talk in military circles of the “Khon Kaen model,” a plot to start an armed rebellion against the junta that is led by a powerful figure living abroad, which can only mean Thaksin. I never saw any evidence of such a plot, but I did meet several red shirts. Not all of them adored Thaksin or his sister, but they did uniformly hate the junta for overthrowing an elected government. (Since none of these people were allowed to talk to journalists, I have disguised their identities.) Some of them were introduced to me as DJs, which I found a trifle strange until I realized that being a DJ simply meant having a radio talk show. Since most people living in Thai villages lack Internet access, underground radio is still the most important alternative source of information.

“Hungry Ghost # 1” (2003), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

“Hungry Ghost # 1” (2003), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

One former DJ explained to me how politics worked on the village level. Local politicians were paid a cut from development projects, as well as a percentage of the funds used by national politicians to finance local election campaigns. This is how it had always been. What set Thaksin apart from other politicians was the skill with which he used his power and money. Instead of making promises, he would stay in villages and ask people what they wanted.

Some of the results can be seen not far from Khon Kaen, in villages set amid rice fields where people still work painstakingly with scythes. A village chief who lived in a simple wooden house with an open-air kitchen and bedroom on the first floor pointed out the new roads connecting the village to the highway. Government loans, made possible by Thaksin, had also enabled the village to buy a tractor, which was shared among the farmers.

The measure that provided the greatest boon to farmers during the terms was also the most controversial. The government paid farmers 50 percent above the market rate, a move that enriched villagers and filled warehouses with unsold rice. When prices collapsed, the Thai government lost billions of dollars. The junta has not resumed the program, which ended last February, and it has limited future plantings. (Yingluck has been indicted in a criminal case for her role in the scheme.) Without subsidies, farmers can no longer repay their loans. Their pickup trucks have to be sold. And resentment against Bangkok is growing.

I was driven to the village by a young man whose face, like most rural Thai and unlike the pale young models you see on billboards eating pizza or promoting snazzy cell phones, was dark brown. A typical red shirt, he told me about growing up in a village and teaching himself to speak English by watching American movies with a dictionary at hand. He planned to open his own business soon. I complimented him on his car. “You know,” he said, “people in Bangkok think we shouldn’t have cars. They want us to lead the same simple lives as before. But why shouldn’t we have cars? They do.”

I thought of Manit and his comments about tricking people with money. That a great deal of money had been spread around, licitly and not so licitly, seemed clear. But it would be much too easy to conclude that voters had simply been bribed. Rather, Thaksin’s populism had stoked their aspirations. By building a new political power base, Thaksin and Yingluck had boosted the ambitions of men like my driver.

The students who were arrested for making the three-finger salute belonged to the so-called Dao Din group, a kind of informal student society whose members get together to discuss social and political issues. The junta claimed that the protesters had been paid to stage their demonstration, an accusation they vehemently deny.

I met one of the students, an articulate young woman from a farming family who had taken out a loan to study law at Khon Kaen University. She appeared to be motivated entirely by youthful idealism. Her goal was to become a human rights lawyer. Villagers, she said, are constantly being bullied by corporate lawyers who defend the interests of mining companies or factory owners. Unable to afford their own lawyers, they are powerless to fight back. She mentioned the case of a gold mine whose pollution she and others had protested. After the coup, she had been ordered to stay away from the mine.

“Horror in Pink # 2 (6 October 1976 Right-wing fanatics’ massacre of democracy protesters)” (2001), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

“Horror in Pink # 2 (6 October 1976 Right-wing fanatics’ massacre of democracy protesters)” (2001), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

The young woman wanted me to understand that she was not fighting for any particular political party. She thought that people were placing too much hope in leaders instead of standing up for themselves. Policies and laws should come from below. “Red shirts,” she said, “wait for things to come from above.” But she agreed with the red shirts that it was essential to have the right to vote. Now that right had been taken away.

Many people in Thailand, in Bangkok as well as in the northeast, told me that ordinary rural people had recently become politicized in a way they had never been before. A foreigner, a longtime resident of Bangkok, said that taxi drivers always used to ask him how much money he made, or whether he liked Thai girls. Now they only wanted to talk about politics. The village chief echoed this, but he told me that people were afraid to talk openly. They are “frightened of being arrested,” he said. “So all they can do now is wait for another chance to vote.”

I had a lunch of peppery northeasternstyle rice noodles with another former DJ, whose show is now banned. I asked him when most rural people had become interested in politics. Was it in 2001, when Thaksin came to power? No, he said. “It was in 2006. People had begun to benefit, and with that first coup the government they had voted for was crushed. Two thousand six was more shocking than the coup in 2014, because they could see the last one coming.”

After a moment of glum silence, a pained smile appeared on his face. His voice dropped to a whisper: “But you know, as long as the subject we cannot talk about persists, there won’t be a true democracy in Thailand.”

More and more often in Thailand, it comes back to the subject one cannot talk about. Some people deny that the monarchy is a significant factor in Thai politics. Others will tell you that all Thai are agreed on one thing: they love the king. It is true that the institution of a sacred kingly authority has a long and deep history in Thailand; the country was ruled by an absolute monarchy until 1932. But it was only in the early 1960s that divine kingship was restored as the main focus of Thai social and political life.

After staging a military coup in 1958, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the authoritarian prime minister, made Religion, Nation, and King into the three pillars of official Thai ideology. They defined what it meant to be Thai. Nationalism and loyalty to the monarch were supposed to be antidotes to Communism, which attracted many Thai intellectuals at the time. Since this was during the Cold War, and Americans were afraid that Communism would topple their Asian allies like so many dominoes, Sarit was strongly backed by Washington.

The problem with King Bhumibol isn’t despotism. In fact, he has always been a mild-mannered, rather gentle figure. But the authority and wealth of the palace are so unassailable that the political process has become seriously warped as a result. Whoever acts in the king’s name, or has the royal blessing, is untouchable.

“Pink Man Begins # 1” (1997), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

“Pink Man Begins # 1” (1997), by Manit Sriwanichpoom. Courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok

I spoke about this with a history teacher in a town north of Bangkok. He said it would take another hundred years for things to change in Thailand. “Our main problem isn’t about the mistakes of this elected government or that,” he said. And then he repeated the same words I had heard from the DJ in Khon Kaen: “It is all about the system that we can’t talk about. If we don’t change that system, things will never get better.”

I suggested that the enforced silence must make it rather awkward to talk about history to his students. “Yes,” he said softly, “very difficult. So we talk about other countries . . . Cambodia, Nepal, France . . . the French Revolution.” Now things have gotten even harder. History teachers, he told me, were required to teach their pupils to recite General Prayuth’s twelve core principles, “so they get more and more stupid.”

But some of them must come up with questions, I said. His reply: “Thai kids are not encouraged to ask questions.”

Back in Bangkok, an extraordinary story was making headlines. Several senior police officers had been arrested on various corruption charges, as well as for lèse-majesté. The last accusation seemed puzzling, as did the timing of their arrest. Why now, all of a sudden? The answer arrived in rumors. The top police official in Thailand was the uncle of Srirasmi, the crown prince’s wife. He had used his royal connections to shake people down. The crown prince was allegedly tired of his wife and wanted to marry another woman. But his wife refused to get divorced. To get rid of her, the crown prince turned on her family.

A brave columnist in the Bangkok Post wrote, “You’ve heard the news, and you know what they’re talking about even though they’re not talking about it.” More rumors began to circulate: the crown prince had made a deal with the junta. They would help him intimidate his wife, and he would promise to cut all ties to Thaksin. Then the junta would support his succession. Palace politics in Thailand are so opaque that no one outside really knows what is going on, but in December, a royal divorce was announced. All privileges held by the family of the former Princess Srirasmi were withdrawn.

On my final day in Bangkok I had lunch with Pansak Vinyaratn, a man who hides a keen analytic mind behind a facade of comic bluster. On his business card Pansak identifies himself as former chief policy adviser to the prime minister of thailand. He was the brains behind Thaksin and Yingluck. “One thing you have to understand about this fucking asshole country,” he said with a beaming smile full of nicotine-stained teeth, “is that the red shirts wanted to live like the elite. They just wanted to be like the yellow shirts. What their movement did was to open up space for new people to participate.”

Like Thaksin, and indeed like Kraisak Choonhavan, whose father he advised in the late 1980s, Pansak is Sino-Thai, from a banking family. He is not a provincial like Thaksin, nor is he quite as grand as Kraisak. As a Sino-Thai, however, he has a shrewd perception of the workings of Thai elites. Sino-Thai tend to be both insiders (in business, finance, and politics) as well as outsiders (in the armed forces, the interior ministry, and the palace). People of Chinese extraction are more assimilated in Thailand than anywhere else in Southeast Asia, but their ethnicity is still relevant. In 1914, King Rama VI referred to the Chinese as the “Jews of the Orient.”

Opening up old institutions to new blood is what outsiders are good at. To hear Pansak tell it, that was one of the great merits of the Thaksin years. Thai politics, dominated for so long by interlocking networks of Bangkok elites, had been opened up to new people: not just to rural Thai from the north and northeast but also to small-business owners, farmers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and schoolteachers, even in and around Bangkok itself.

The reason why so many metropolitan Thai hated Thaksin, in Pansak’s view, was that he “came up too fast. He didn’t ask the old elites for any favors.” Pansak told me that he still believed in the “utility” of democracy. “Talk about freedom and all that is bullshit for stupid idiots. Democracy is about giving people a chance to take part. If the old elites refuse to open up space, they will go on fighting among themselves, and the army will step in again, and again.”

is a professor at Bard College. His most recent book is Theater of Cruelty (New York Review Books).

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