“Military juntas are rare in the modern world,” a professor at Berkeley said in lecture. “If you’re currently living under one, then you should realize that it isn’t normal.” As someone from Thailand, it was hard not to think about those words, with Thailand still ruled by that apparently rare species of government.
The statement is debatable; many countries, even if they are not overt military governments, are dictatorships that remain in power due to the consent of the armed forces, or retain substantial military influence in politics. But the fact that Thailand is under the grip of a junta is still worth thinking about. The natural question to be raised, of course, is why?
Where many other Asian countries of comparable levels of development has successfully democratized, Thailand seems most prone to regress to authoritarianism. Indeed, Thailand in the 21st century has been marked by seemingly interminable political conflict and division. Colour-coded protests, blood on the streets, military coups, court decisions that toppled prime ministers: for almost twenty years, Thailand has staged political drama of every kind. What really happened? Few mention it now, but Thailand in the late 1990s had undergone an unprecedented level of democratization. Thailand in 2018 is in the fifth year of rule by a military junta.
How did this country’s politics go so terribly astray?
Last year, I wrote The Story of Thai Democracy, a history of democratic Thailand from its earliest beginnings under absolutist rule to the 2014 coup. I still believe it is crucial to understand the history of Thailand since 1932; only by gaining an understanding of the fundamental underpinnings and flaws of Thai democracy do we have any hope of fixing it.
I’ve also come to realize, however, that understanding Thailand’s present day crisis requires more than just a cursory look at its roots. While this crisis embodies the same recurring themes in Thailand’s democratic history, there are also unique elements to it that deserve special attention. To fully resolve the current political situation, we must take a nuanced, detailed look at how we got here. Therefore, I’ve decided to write a history of Thailand in the 21st century in this new series: Thailand in Crisis. A full ten articles will be devoted to exploring the current political crisis, starting with its roots in the final years of the previous century up to the present day.
This, like The Story of Thai Democracy, will not be a scholarly project. I am not interested in producing original research here. My passion has always been for taking complicated issues in politics and policy and explaining them simply to the widest possible audience. But I also intend for these articles to go beyond the vitriol and oversimplification that defines much of Thailand’s political discourse. It isn’t enough to simply throw around easy talking points like “Thaksin Shinawatra is a corrupt populist who buys votes” or “the elites hate democracy and don’t care about what the poor thinks”. Phrases of this sort must be rephrased into questions. What was Thaksin’s ideology exactly, to the extent that he had one, and why was it effective? And why is there such opposition to him? And hopefully, at the end, we’ll be able to at least come up with some possible answers to the biggest, fundamental question: why is Thailand still so prone to military intervention, and why is it unable to develop a successful democracy?
I hope that this series will be valuable in explaining why Thailand’s politics is so troubled, and that it will help illuminate what may otherwise seem like a hopelessly complicated situation. Once again, I hope that you’ll join me for the ride!