In the midst of our great election crisis, here’s the latest news on another crisis — the one in Thailand, as reported by our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan.
Why so many coups?
by H. Numan
I’ve been reporting about Thailand for many years. This year, on the 30th of December, I celebrate 25 years of being an alien. I kind of dislike being called an alien, but there you go. That is what foreigners are called under Thai law. Thailand is not America. You can’t get a green card. Citizenship is possible, but… his majesty the king personally grants you citizenship. As kings usually have more important things to do, you can understand that acquiring Thai nationality is pretty difficult. In those 25 years I witnessed and reported about three successful coups, several failed coup attempts, a siege of Bangkok and more. When I arrived in 1994 the 24th constitution was being written. I’ve lost count, but the current one should be version 26 or 27.
We expats joke about so many constitutions: The new constitution™. Super clean! Now with more Anti-Corruptors© and extra transparency! I calculated how often a coup has been committed since the bloodless coup of 1932 that abolished the absolute monarchy. Should be around 40. On average a coup every four years. One could say, with good reason, the form of Thai government is a coup-o-cracy. We go to the ballot box every four years; Thais have a coup. Why is that?
One big reason is the capital. Bangkok is twenty-six times bigger than the next largest city. It’s quite common for capitals to be bigger than other cities in a country, but 26 times bigger is unique. The Bangkok Metropolitan Area (BMA) is the city of Bangkok with surrounding provinces as an administrative unit. It is the only multi-province city in the country, and that has vast consequences. Effectively Bangkok is a huge city-state with Thailand surrounding it. For Dutch readers: the size of the BMA is equal to the province of Gelderland, the largest Dutch province. With as many inhabitants as The Netherlands has. Imagine everybody living in Gelderland and nowhere else. Makes for a pretty big city, what?
All roads in Thailand lead to Bangkok. Literally and metaphorically. Most companies have their headquarters in Bangkok. If they haven’t, they are not a nationwide or international company. Same goes for education. Of course you can study somewhere else, but most — and the most prestigious — universities are in Bangkok. A civil career means finding a job in administration — which you find in Bangkok. Bangkokians talk about ‘up country’ which means anywhere outside of Bangkok. The legal minimum wage varies per province, but is highest in Bangkok, where the cost of living is the highest. Roughly speaking, about 20 million people live in Bangkok. The remaining +50 million live ‘up country’. Thais have a saying: the government is elected up country, but sent home in Bangkok.
When I arrived in 1994, Thailand had gone through a bloody coup period. Democracy was new, and thriving. Thaksin Shinawatra was a business tycoon who just went into politics. I was there on a meeting when he, as the new minister for telecommunications, announced he would solve the traffic problems of Bangkok in three months. Of course he couldn’t. I think even the mighty Heracles would prefer cleaning the stable of King Augeas rather than solve that problem. Much easier!
That period was the eye in the storm. A temporary calm period. Thaksin was a very capable politician. His traffic promise cost his party, the Palang Dharma party, everything. They disappeared. He walked away scot-free and founded a new party. He used his own marketing team to do the promotion. That’s like Mark Zuckerberg deciding he wants to become PM, and ordering his marketing team to make it happen. Of course, it happened.
Adherents of Thaksin wore red shirts. The color has nothing to do with communism. The communist party is explicitly forbidden in every Thai constitution. Red stands for the blood of the people or for the people itself. It’s a very common mistake made by left-wing intellectuals: Thaksin supporters are predominantly rural and urban poor, and wear red. So they must fight for the proletariat! Don’t laugh. They really think that. I had the experience during the Siege of Bangkok.
Which brings us to Thai nobility. We have our own nobility. They don’t have western titles, like duke or count. But they do have titles, and are hugely powerful. The system is very different from the West. Every generation inherits a lower ranking title, up to three generations. After that they are no longer noble. Though most often still recognizable: when someone has ‘na’ in the family name, they decent from nobility, like ‘von’ in German. “Somchai Na Ayutthaya” would be someone descending from the royal family of Ayutthaya. We expats often joke about that. Patpong is both the name of the famous red light district of Bangkok and a very rich and extremely powerful family. Jimmy Na Patpong would be a joke name for someone visiting the nightlife very often. Na Patpong, by the way, does not exist. The Patpong family is not noble, though they own that plot of Bangkok.
Even the titles ‘king’ and ‘queen’ are different in Thai. The present king did not really become king upon the death of his father. He had a slightly different title in Thai, which translates as ‘he who will become king’. He held that title until the day of his coronation. In Thailand queens have a rank. In the west, we call them all queen. But in Thai they are ‘queen of the first rank’, queen of the second rank’ and so on. There are six ranks. Her majesty queen Sirikit was queen of the first rank. That is the highest status for a Thai queen, and rarely given. One must be a royal princess and a direct descendant of a (Thai) king to become one, plus a lot of different rules.
The present queen of Thailand is her majesty Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana. She was a commoner and elevated to her status by the king. As such she cannot be ‘queen of the first rank’ and can rise no higher than ‘queen of the third rank’. How can you see the rank? Not on the sleeve, obviously. On very official ceremonies royals have attendants carrying multi-tiered umbrellas. A queen of the first rank has an umbrella with six tiers, a queen of lower rank fewer. Only the king has a seven-tiered umbrella. Count the tiers of the umbrella, and you know what status she holds.
The differences between the big city and the countryside are enormous. When you are in Bangkok you might just as easily think you are in New York, London or Amsterdam. Hotels, schools, businesses and hospitals are the same quality or even better. Within that big city quite a few people live in shacks. Outside Bangkok, especially in rural areas, you can see much more of that. That is what makes Thailand a third-world country. Some people are fabulously rich, while most are dirt poor.
The Thai elite still have the idea that ‘we did pretty well before the farangs (foreigners) came, and will do very nicely after they have left’. Thai national news opens with news about royalty, after that national news, and only after that a few items about international news. Most Thais aren’t much interested in international news.
All that brings everything together. We have a country where 1/3 live in a huge city and 2/3 live a more rural life based on rice farming. Thailand was never colonized, and still is very much inward-looking. The elites rule, or rather: would like to rule, like in the bygone time of Ayutthaya. The elite knows that they have to rely on the army for that; so does the crown. The army can’t rule alone, but do so by supporting the elite and the monarchy. Which means that the poor Thais are presented with the bill for all that. Once in a while (not very often) the not-so-rich Thais let the elites know they don’t like it. In recent decades that has usually been the middle class of Bangkok.
Forget Thailand being a democratic country. It’s a country where democracy is very young. It was an absolute monarchy until 1932. The revolution that abolished it was led by younger princes who felt they were passed over for promotion. Of course they claimed to fight for the people. Which revolutionary doesn’t? Just about every coup, successful or unsuccessful, claimed the same.
Right now the political situation is becoming very different, and far more dangerous. King Rama IX reigned indirectly. He used his vast popular influence behind the scenes. He was able to ask the military and revolutionaries to come together to the royal palace. There he ordered them to stop fighting. They prostrated themselves for the king and duly obliged. No questions asked. It was over in a few minutes. During the last two or three coups that was no longer possible, as the health of king Rama IX declined. He was, after all, the world’s longest-reigning monarch by then. The new king has stated openly he wants to rule as an absolute monarch. An absolute monarch Thai style, which is far more absolute than Louis XIV the Sun King or Henry VIII could even dream of.
What changed in the last coup was the length of the military dictatorship. Usually, the military takes over in a messy situation. They restore order — usually to benefit the coup makers. Then call for new elections, that year or the next. The last military government didn’t follow that pattern. They took control in 2014, and are still in power. At first they postponed elections for a couple of weeks, then a few months, then postponed it for a whole year and so on. Until 2019, when they allowed elections.
I told you that the Thai military are the world leaders in camouflage. The present government is the previous military junta, with some minor additions to the cabinet. The old junta members simply retired from the army, that’s all. They wear civvies now. Not only do they have a veto in the senate over anything they want, but they also wrote a blueprint for behavior which any civilian government as well as parliament must obey until at least 2039.
Most rural Thais are pretty much indifferent regarding politics. They always get the wrong end of the stick anyway. I spoke with some. Sure, we know the difference between the Democrats (Thai Democrat party has nothing to do with the US Democrats) and Peu Thai (Thaksin’s party, now abolished). Both of them offer us a new four-lane road to the village if we vote for them, and both of them give us Bt. 500 per vote. The difference is that Peu Thai not only pays that promised Bt. 500, but also builds a two-lane road. Not a four-lane, and we know the mayor and his friends pocket the money. But we do get that road. The Democrats pay maybe Bt. 500, and for sure pocket all the money for the road. Who would you vote for?
Thaksin was the first Thai politician who really used the popular vote to become prime minister. He kept at least some of his promises, which is a lot more than other politicians do. That’s why he won an absolute majority in elections every time.
However, that doesn’t sit well with the powers that be in Bangkok. They put an end to that, rather permanently it seems. Thaksin is out of office and out of the country for over a decade. An unwritten rule in Thai politics is that once a politician flees the country he is invulnerable. He doesn’t exist anymore. Pro forma Thaksin probably is on a list of wanted people, but nobody really works to get him extradited to Thailand. Nor are any assassination or kidnap attempts made on him. Of course he has a lot of security, but that is because he still is a billionaire. As long as he stays out of Thailand, and ,more importantly, out of politics, he’s safe where he is.
The current turmoil would have happened anyway. The Chinese virus crisis only hastened it. It’s a combination of a severe economic crisis added to an existing and a new emerging political crisis. The junta was able to subdue and control politics for much longer than I expected.
The old red shirt opposition is no longer there. That movement has been completely suppressed. Not gone, mind you, but suppressed. However, like every government in existence that squashes unwanted opposition, they have now discovered that an entirely new opposition has emerged. This time, it’s the students. How this is going to play out, I really can’t say. What I can say is that it won’t be pretty.
At the moment the government is pretty much fed up with the ongoing demonstrations, and announced the gloves are off. They will no longer allow mass demonstrations and anything remotely looking like lèse majesté will be prosecuted to the fullest.
— H. Numan