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COUPS IN THAILAND – part one

09/01/2015

COUPS IN THAILAND – part one

22 May 2014 saw the latest coup in Thailand when General (now Prime Minister) Prayuth, having declared martial law, led the military in finalising the dissolution of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shiniwatra.

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The military’s justification, later endorsed by the King and thus given legitimacy, was to prevent the escalating violence between the political factions and to restore order by putting in place a temporary alternative to a civilian government that, not entirely through its own faults and actions, had become dysfunctional. Opposition parties blockading government business and the encouragement of partisan views rather than taking a nation-wide stance had resulted in little actual government of the country taking place.

The stalemate was resolved by the bloodless coup of which the majority of Thais sanctioned. They may have preferred a different and democratic solution but they saw the benefits of decisions at last being taken in running the day to day business of the country. Corruption was targeted. Electoral reform promised. Communication with the people, if a little propagandist in tone, established in weekly broadcasts.

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Let’s look at two Worldviews.

The Western View: Coup – bad. Democracy – good.

Many of the coups that we hear about in the world serve to violently force a change of régime and implant a dictatorial government against the wishes of the people. So, if one’s worldview is that an administration voted into power through the ballot box without any intimidation or force and which acts principally in accordance with the electorate’s wishes is perfectly good democracy, then a coup is self-evidently illegitimate and bad.

If there is widespread corruption, if the political manifestoes outlined to the populace prior to elections are not being followed, and if government becomes unworkable, then the timing may be right for the seeds of an alternative to be sown. We will see later that there are parallels between the 2014 coup and that which brought in the 1959-1963 government of Premier Sarit. Thais look at democracy differently from foreigners.

The functioning of democracy in western nations is not without its critics. Do our own countries govern in line with the manifestoes they presented to their electorates? Are lobbyists, big businesses, financial institutions, influential labour unions, and moneyed powerful families listened to more than the voices of the people who voted the politicians into office? Is there a perception that voters who trusted their representatives to act as promised are beginning to feel disenchanted with the current political model?

Unforeseen events can cause glitches in foreign and domestic policy, playing havoc in a country’s economy, but is that always the reason for a government to ignore the needs and hopes of the people and not keep to its agreed agenda? Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Edward Heath (the UK premier from 1970 to 1974, a parliamentarian for 51 years) had concerns on how democracy was applied in practice and sometimes lent towards more autocratic methods. He accepted that democratic theories could be deficient and not always followed in practice: in his words: – the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism.

In the West we believe all people are created equal and, whatever imperfections exist in current democracies, have a right to choose who governs us. That is our worldview. The Thais do not see it like that.

The Thai worldview takes account more of their (sometimes reluctant) acceptance of their country’s feudal like hierarchy, their personal economic security, and the unquestioning importance in their philosophy of complying with family and community norms. They fully understand the notion of democracy and that governments should be elected by the people but they don’t feel completely confident in changing from the more autocratic régimes they have become used to and which fit more closely with the paternalistic nature of Thai culture.

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Given that no one system is perfect, let’s try to dig more deeply and try to understand why Thais have this worldview. To do so, we will need to look at their history and culture.

Until the middle of the fourteenth century Thailand was not under the rule of just one king. It was not even seen as being one country. Only in 1767, when King Taksin repelled the Burmese, did the country begin to appear more united, the Ayutthaya dynasty having created a more stratified and hierarchical society to control most of what were really existing “principalities”.

Taksin’s top general took over the kingship in 1782, founding the Chakri dynasty which continues to reign today. Under a predominantly peaceful rule, the first two Chakri kings paved the way for Rama III, the third king of the royal house, to make Thailand (Siam as it became known) a nation state. The people showed a sense of solidarity in being Thai. The country was becoming one single state, a society with a strong nationalistic pride. A trait that you cannot fail to recognise when you visit today’s Thailand.

Thais have a potent awareness of class. No Thai considers himself equal to another. Sons and daughters defer to their parents and family elders, children won’t challenge their teachers in class, students are shy of arguing with their professors, and the young and less “important” will wai their elders and “betters” first. Outward obedience and compliance are watchwords. It is a feudal hierarchical structure which Thais in the main take as being the normal way of life.

The revolutions that occurred in France and Russia, for example, appear too disrespectful to the élite and unnecessarily forceful to the Thai. There have been criticisms and protests calling for change but the pace was always slow and the shifts from existing methods of government were hardly earth shattering. While student demonstrations, lobbying from big business, and some of the military coups brought in amendments, there was no serious challenge to the social structure: the class divide. That remains true even today.

There has been economic development and growth, elections have at times taken place to bring in civilian governments, but there were times when there were no elections and only rule by the élite or military. Most Thais, as a current opinion poll shows, gave the present government under Prayuth a high acceptance rating, though not at the high level of 80% achieved in an independent survey in the first days of the new régime.

The people appear to have come to an understanding that rule by authoritative men is the natural order. In November 2012 Patik Siam advocated and rallied for a rule by “good men” for a period of five years in an attempt to rid the country of political corruption and the constant ineffective and unproductive bickering of party officials. It failed, though the idea was brought back to life in May 2014 with the military coup under Prayuth.

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2 Comments
  1. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Read as widely as you can in the Media but also talk to a cross section of Thais – as many as you can – to get a balanced and more representative account of what’s actually happening. Internet forums and blogs are not always even-handed or factually correct.

    New Mandala and its star performer Andrew McGregor Marashal, who choose to resign from Reuters because they found his articles were not properly sourced, takes every opportunity to denigrate Thais and Thailand.

    A travel blogger based in Bangkok, with over 80,000 followers who hang on his every word, sees mainly through rose-tinted spectacles. He has links with the Tourist Authority of Thailand which can hardly makes his views unbiased. The classic was when, after driving around Bangkok, he declared to seeing virtually no soldiers on the streets of Bangkok when the coup was announced. As a respected journalist in Thailand pointed out: that was likely due to his selecting a route where he knew there would be few members of the military. His followers swallowed every word.

    Read widely, speak to Thais.

    Like

  2. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Reblogged this on Matt.Owens.Rees; Thailand Writer and commented:

    Now with added pictures

    Like

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