Letter from Thailand — From the June 2015 issue

A Polite Coup

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

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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?

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

More from Ian Buruma:

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