Thailand’s coup is not what the generals had hoped for

Thailand’s coup is not what the generals had hoped for
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Instability looms in Thailand as the army fails to deliver on promises following its 2014 coup.

On the May 22, 2014, the Royal Thai Army overthrew a democratically elected government on the basis of two promises: it would bring political stability to the country and revive the economy. It has so far delivered neither.

The latest coup occurred against the backdrop of several months of ‘occupy’-style anti-government demonstrations and clashes with pro-government forces, which brought large parts of Bangkok to a standstill.

Following the coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was quickly appointed the new leader and established a National Council for Peace and Order. Appearing on national television, the general promised reforms that would bring political stability and revive the economy which has been sluggish since the 2006 coup.

That coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who shook up the balance of power by aiming his policies towards traditionally disenfranchised rural voters in Thailand’s north.

Feelings surrounding the coup were mixed from the outset: welcomed by the anti-government protesters and various investors, resisted by the pro-government camp and sections of the population without political allegiances.

In the weeks that followed, the military detained key political leaders and activists, particularly those affiliated or involved with the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement.

Within a week, the army declared that it would concentrate its efforts on restoring the economy and bringing ‘happiness’ back to the country – a dubious propaganda notion promoted every Friday on national TV.

Emergency measures were drawn up including support for Thailand’s farmers, who were left unpaid for months after a government funded scheme collapsed. Siam Commercial Bank, with close ties to Thailand’s business elites, was quick to forecast growth in the region of 4.5% for 2015 following the coup.

However, 2014 showed that the Thai economy grew by only 0.7%, the second worst performance in ASEAN. By contrast, Thailand’s neighbours Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines grew by 6%, 5.02% and 5.98%, respectively.

As the army has sought to encourage and reassure foreign investors, it has pushed through several big-ticket infrastructure projects which it hopes will help propel the economy forward. Approving these projects is one thing. Ensuring they are run smoothly while delivering substantial benefits for the country is a different task entirely.

The fact that the coup has cost Thailand over $15 billion also fuels uncertainty about the feasibility of using such methods to rejuvenate the country’s economy. Research by Paul Collier, an economics professor at Oxford, has argued that coups can cost a country up to 7% of income loss annually.

In its attempt to bring Thailand back to the path of political stability, the army has failed to reconcile Thailand’s divided society. Over the last 10 years, all sides have become increasingly entrenched in their positions – politics has split friends and even families, reportedly leading Thais to use the controversial lèse-majesté law to report on one another.

Since Martial Law was declared, the army has been relentless in arresting anti-coup protestors for acts of sedition while silencing opposition (radio stations, academics, public figures) using the lèse-majesté law.

In the context of the ailing King Bhumibol’s health, succession to the throne has become another aggravating factor of Thailand’s continuing political deadlock. The royal household, traditionally considered above politics, has been split.

Analysts are pointing to the crown prince’s support for the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, while the crown princess, rumoured to support the pro-government Yellow Shirts, has officially remained impartial. Her younger sister however, has demonstrated strong support for the Yellow Shirts.

This has created a very real situation where the king’s passing could be become a catalyst for mass demonstrations on either side of the political spectrum.

For example, should the crown prince assume the throne, it could pave the way for the pardon of the self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin with whom he reportedly has close ties, undoubtedly bringing throngs of protesters back onto the street.

The generals’ absolute grip on power has kept the demonstrators quiet – for now. There is a strong belief that once Martial Law is lifted, the Red Shirts will simply return and vote for a pro-Thaksin government in any future election. Should this occur, Thailand’s political divisions will return to plague the country socially and economically.

In the nine months that the generals have taken power, they have failed to deliver on their promises. Thailand may seem stable on the surface, but scratch a bit deeper and it seems that all but a few strings are holding things together.

The Thai army now faces battles on political, social and economic fronts and although its intentions at heart may be good, its methods are highly questionable. The Thai political landscape continues to be volatile and, most disturbingly, it could be events outside the army’s control that throw Thailand back into turmoil.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.