This post is the fifth post in the series ‘Thailand in Crisis’, covering the political history of Thailand in the 21st century. You can see the rest of the project here.
Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the commander in chief of the Thai military, claimed that once while dining with Thaksin Shinawtra, the prime minister had asked him whether or not he would stage a coup. Sonthi had replied, “I will”. The road that was taken to make that response become reality was long and winding.
The general election of 2005 was not difficult for Thaksin. His Thai Rak Thai party won 375 seats in parliament – enough to dump their coalition partners – and thus became the first democratically elected government in Thailand to complete a full term and win re-election to another. The hapless Democrats, who pleaded with the populace to give them at least 201 seats, won a meagre 96; the opposition now had too few seats to even call for a vote of no confidence. It was a thumping endorsement of Thaksin, and the prime minister seemed like the strongest leader in a generation.
Thaksin’s dominance of Thai politics, however, proved to be surprisingly fleeting. A year into his second term, Thaksin’s family sold their stake of 49% in Shin Corporation, their telecommunications company, to Temasek Holdings, an investment arm of the Government of Singapore. This came a day after the Thai Telecommunications Act of 2006 went into effect, which raised the maximum on foreign holdings in telecom companies to 49%.
Political opponents immediately cried foul, accusing Thaksin of selling out the country. Combined with less rosy economic numbers, mismanagement of violence in the southern border provinces, and allegations that the prime minister showed insufficient respect to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thaksin’s political problems quickly mounted.
The opposition quickly emerged, re-energized, in the form of the ‘yellow shirt’ protests – the People’s Alliance for Democracy. These were led by Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul who formerly supported Thaksin but turned into one of the prime minister’s biggest foes. This was fertile ground for a reactionary movement. The Bangkok middle class had quickly soured on Thaksin, believing he was corrupt and his voters in the rural hinterlands were uneducated and had been ‘bought off’ by Thaksin’s wealth. Protesters began rallying with increasing frequency and intensity; a rally at the Royal Plaza in February, for example, drew a crowd of an estimated 50,000.
To placate the opposition, Thaksin dissolved parliament; he evidently decided a new mandate was required for him to govern. Things did not go as planned, however. The opposition, now under the leadership of the young Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, realized that they had no hope of winning a snap election and decided to boycott the election. This posed a problem for Thaksin, as the 1997 constitution required that any candidate running uncontested must earn at least 20% of the vote, which was a difficult task for TRT candidates running in the Democrat stronghold of the south. In response, TRT supported several smaller parties to run to create a semblance of competition. The initial result was 462 seats for the TRT, but it emerged that 38 candidates could not be seated as they had not earned 20% of the vote in the south. The Democrats refused to contest the by-elections, meaning that parliament could not sit. The election results were eventually annulled by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it was incomplete, prolonging the constitutional crisis. Thaksin agreed to resign and became a caretaker prime minister.
Political struggling continued, but ended in dramatic fashion: a military coup d’état in September 2006.
This was surprising to those who thought that Thailand had left coups in the past, with the last one in the turbulent period of the 1990s. Many believed that the Thai military had finally become a de-politicized professional fighting force; they were proven wrong. Many in the military had been dissatisfied with Thaksin’s attempts to promote those close to him to the upper echelons of the army, and despite the growing professionalization of the armed forces since the 1990s, its political nature remained. It was thus this military, under the leadership of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, that formed the Council for Democratic Reform and assumed political power. Sonthi dissolved the cabinet, abrogated the 1997 constitution and declared nationwide martial law. Thaksin, attending a United Nations conference in New York, attempted to make a televised statement declaring a state of emergency and removing Sonthi from his post, but his statement was cut. Thaksin’s rule was over.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Council for Democratic Reform appointed an interim civilian government to run the country while a new constitution was drafted, with former army supreme commander and privy councilor Surayud Chulanont as prime minister. The new regime was confronted with a new dilemma. It wished to seek the speediest return possible to democracy, but to also prevent the re-empowerment of the popularly-elected government that it had just overthrown. How could this be accomplished?
By May 2007, a court ruled that TRT had engaged in electoral fraud and thus ordered the party dissolved, while 111 of its executives were banned from politics for five years. Meanwhile, the new government set about drafting a new constitution. The 1997 constitution, observed a columnist, “vaunted as the most democratic ever, delivered power into the hands of the least democratic leader of recent years”. Thus, a new constitution was needed to prevent a re-run of Thaksinocracy. New provisions included a senate that was half appointed (unlike that of the 1997 constitution, which for the first time was fully elected), the forbidding of politicians from intervening with the work of bureaucrats, and term limits for prime ministers. The intention was clear: to prevent the same concentration of executive authority that Thaksin had accumulated. The constitution was approved through a referendum in August 2007, although critics charged that those against had been barred from campaigning.
The 2006 coup was often referred to by some Thais as “the good coup”, as Thaksin’s opponents saw the overthrowing of the Thaksin government as worth the trouble of a military intervention and temporary unelected government. What the coup-makers failed to realize, however, was the strength of feeling and the staying power that Thaksin had within his base in the north and northeast. The so-called good coup, it turned out, would resolve nothing.