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  • Thailand After the Coup
  • Scott Christensen (bio)

Few expected that tensions between the armed forces and the civilian cabinet of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven would lead to a military coup on 23 February 1991 and the fall of Thailand's first elected prime minister since 1976. The event suggests that despite the increasing presence of many "preconditions" for democracy—a dynamic economy, widespread political pluralism, literacy, and a more open society—Thailand has not been able to put a permanent end to authoritarian rule. The struggle for power between men in uniform and civilian politicians continues to play a major role in Thai politics. Although elites accept the principle of popular sovereignty, they differ among themselves on how best to distribute power equitably.

The February coup reflects two distinguishing features that have shaped Thai democracy. The first is the relatively recent formation and consolidation of the Thai state. After the revolt against the hereditary monarchy in 1932, generals and the civil service ruled over and above any formal state institutions. Recently, however, state structures have been institutionalized, while the old elite has been challenged by professional politicians and public interest groups. Political competition has created an intense power struggle among these elites, new and old, for control of the infrastructure of the Thai state.1

The second feature involves the ways in which agents of political change build coalitions among themselves and bargain with the old ruling elite.2 Thai political parties have concentrated mostly on undermining and [End Page 94] supplanting military and bureaucratic elites and have failed to create a viable alternative public arena in which to change the informal "rules" of Thai politics. This is partly because military officers see themselves as guardians of a moral political order and refuse to limit their "national security" concerns to defense matters. But it also reflects the inability of the parties to set a political agenda and build political coalitions to address social issues, in particular the acute problems emerging with rapid industrialization.

The Coup and Its Consequences

The coup leaders—three army generals, an air chief marshal, and a navy admiral—ousted Chatichai's government with the declaration that it had lost its legitimacy due to its reckless corruption, abuse of the civil service, attempts to "destroy" the military, and coverup of an alleged conspiracy against the royal family. The generals certainly benefitted from an apathetic public aware of the widespread corruption among elected cabinet ministers and dismayed by the Chatichai government's bleak performance in carrying out administrative and policy reform, reducing income inequality, and providing much-needed infrastructure. In an attempt to demonstrate that they did not mean to rule by fiat, the self-appointed junta immediately presented four candidates for the premiership to King Bhumipol, who chose the widely esteemed former diplomat and business executive Anand Panyarachun. In contrast to Chatichai, Prime Minister Anand filled his cabinet with respected technocrats, businessmen, and government officials.

Most observers regard the February coup as a major setback for Thai democracy. In the 1980s there had been a gradual movement away from direct military rule and intervention in politics. While the military, technocrats, and members of parliament (MPs) shared power under Chatichai's predecessor General Prem Tinsulanond, political openness combined with rapid economic development created more diversity both in and out of government and a sense that military coups were a thing of the past. After the 1978 Constitution survived a brief military challenge in 1983, and coup attempts in 1981 and 1985 failed to gain the support of most military officers, the parties became more confident while many MPs established ever-stronger relationships with their constituents. Under Chatichai public debates, demonstrations, and forums of all sorts thrived in a climate of openness. Many hoped that after 1988, Chatichai would even be able to subject the military to civilian control.

Now, however, despite the stated commitments of the Anand government and the junta (which has christened itself the National Peacekeeping Council, or NPC) to hold general elections within a year, few in Thailand remain optimistic about democracy's medium-term prospects. After imposing martial law, banning public gatherings, [End Page 95] abolishing the 1978 Constitution, dissolving both chambers of parliament...


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