Thailand has had a turbulent history. The only country in Southeast Asia to avoid European colonization, Thailand has proven to be subject to many of the same problems of its less fortunate neighbors: frequent military intervention into politics, separatist insurgencies, and authoritarian rule. This paper will seek to explain some of the roots of the political instability that has plagued Thailand in recent years.
The political institutions of Thailand directly affect the stability of the country. While Thailand does have an independent judiciary (a critical element of lasting democracy), litigation can be extremely slow and extralegal means are frequently used to circumvent its decisions (Economist 2008, 7). The previously ruling party, Thai Rak Thai, was banned in May 2007 due to electoral fraud (Economist 2008, 5), and the electoral structure in place during the April 2006 election made resolution of the voting impossible. After opposition parties boycotted the election called by Prime Minister Thaksin, many voters chose to cast a “no vote” ballot. “Under Thai electoral law, candidates who faced no competition were required to win at least 20% of the vote… [the election] failed to produce a full slate of members of Parliament…[and] a constitutional crisis loomed” (Ockey 2007, 134-135).
As in many developing countries, the military in Thailand plays a strong and active political role. The long military struggle against Islamic separatist insurgents in the south has increased the military’s role in domestic politics. Croissant explained that “insurgency and counter-insurgency contribute to the erosion of liberal democracy in Thailand… [because] persistent internal conflicts make the civilians dependent on the military’s coercive power… [and] the inability of elected governments to provide for peaceful means of settling social conflicts undermined the legitimacy of the civilian actors and the democratic institutions” (Croissant 2007, 1,24).
Civilian control of the military is an essential condition for lasting democracy (Croissant and Kuehn 2009, 189). This crucial point has been problematic for Thailand throughout its history, as the Thai officer corps has a strong tradition of intervention in domestic politics (Croissant and Kuehn 2009, 209). That tradition was manifested recently by the September 2006 coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin from power. The previously mentioned electoral crisis, widespread feeling throughout the military that the civilian government was mismanaging the war against Islamic insurgents in the south, and resentment over the politicization of military promotions were the primary motivations behind the coup (Ockey 2007, 135). Even before the coup, however, “civilians had almost no influence in defense policymaking, leaving all external defense issues to the military” (Croissant and Kuehn 2009, 198). The coup was also a reaction against Prime Minister Thaskin’s attempts to consolidate his power and destroy the military’s political influence (Croissant and Kuehn 2009, 197).
Populism arose in Thailand in January 2001, when Thaskin won a landslide victory in the general election. Thaskin’s party, the Thai Rak Thai, had a virtual majority without forming a coalition with any other party, something that had not happened in Thailand before (Choi 2005, 49-50). The previous regime had been very focused on exports and foreign investment that benefited the cities; Thaskin rose to power by reaching out to the rural agricultural interests, by offering debt relief and investment for the smaller villages (Choi 2005, 52). The rural areas of Thailand were particularly receptive to populist ideas, because the 1997 Asian economic crisis had hit them the hardest, and the poorest Thais became even poorer (Choi 2005, 55). Thaskin’s support did not extend to Bangkok. A Thai exchange student staying with my family explained that when the military deposed him in 2006, the urban middle class supported the coup as a positive move for the country, removing what they saw as a corrupt and illegitimate government (Sofun, 2010).
There are many threats to democracy in Thailand. The press in Thailand is tightly controlled by the government, and censorship is quite common (Economist 2008, 7). Without a free press, democracy cannot function in an efficient and sustainable manner because governments cannot be held as accountable. Thailand is listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit as a “flawed democracy.” Although elections are generally free from voter intimidation, vote buying is rampant, party financing transparency is an issue, and there is a general lack of confidence in political parties among the populace. Thailand also suffers from a high level of corruption among government officials (Economist 2008, 8). Until Thailand can exercise complete and total civilian control over its armed forces, military intervention will always be a threat to democracy there.
The problems in Thailand come sharpest into focus when you can see things at the level of the individual family. In my personal interview with a Thai national, she explained how these issues have directly affected her life. Although she has family in the southern regions of Thailand, she has never been able to visit them, because the violence and terrorism stemming from Islamic separatist movements there have made it such a dangerous place. She also explained that people do not feel free to express dissent, criticize the government, or even talk about politics because they fear reprisals from their government.
Thailand shows that many of the problems we see throughout the developing world cannot always be blamed on colonialism. Instability, military intervention in the political system, and separatist movements are worldwide problems that have diverse causes, and the regional tension within Thailand between the rural North, the Muslim South, and the wealthier city dwellers is not something we can write off as a European created problem.
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Croissant, Aurel. 2007. “Muslim Insurgency, Political Violence, and Democracy in Thailand.” Terrorism & Political Violence 19, no. 1: 1-18. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 11, 2010).
Croissant, Aurel, and David Kuehn. “Patterns of Civilian Control of the Military in East Asia’s New Democracies.” Journal of East Asian Studies 9, no. 2 (May 2009): 187-217. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 11, 2010).
Economist Intelligence Unit. 2008. “Political forces and institutions.” Country Profile. Thailand 5-8. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 11, 2010).
Ockey, James. 2007. “THAILAND IN 2006: Retreat to Military Rule.” Asian Survey 47, no. 1: 133-140. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 11, 2010).