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How Thailand Became the World’s Last Military Dictatorship

The Atlantic logoThe Atlantic 21/03/2019 Eugénie Mérieau
Prayut Chan-o-cha wearing a uniform: Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand's military junta, prays at a military parade in 2014. © Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand's military junta, prays at a military parade in 2014.

If military dictatorship is defined in the strictest sense as the rule of a junta or military officer who comes to power through a coup and then doesn’t hold elections to offer a veneer of legitimacy, then Thailand is the world’s last military dictatorship.

It seems difficult to believe that such a peaceful, thriving country that welcomes millions of tourists each year is in fact a military dictatorship, let alone the last one. Yet Thailand has been through so many military coups that they almost have a business-as-usual feel to them. The reality of army rule in the country is that it is, in a political sense, thoroughly unremarkable, reliant on a familiar mix of repression and political control, with one key difference: It has the blessings of a powerful protector.

When the Thai military seized power on May 22, 2014, not a single drop of blood was spilled. Tanks rolled through the streets while the army took over television channels to announce the coup. That was it; coup-making in Thailand is completed in a speech.

At the time, a few other military dictatorships existed in the world, notably in Fiji and Egypt. But Fiji held elections in 2018—legitimizing Frank Bainimarama, the island nation’s military leader. The same outcome awaited Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: Elections were held in 2014 and again in 2018, with the same result.

Nowadays, the military-coup playbook revolves around holding elections within a year or so of seizing power, usually after carefully drafting a constitution. The 2006 coup in Thailand followed this very pattern. A year and a half after it was staged, elections were held under a new constitution entrenching the power of the military in a country still partly under martial law. Despite those efforts, though, the pro-military parties still lost at the polls. In fact, in Thailand, the military usually loses post-coup elections, a fact its leaders are very much aware of. Unable to effectively engage in direct election rigging, Thai military juntas have consolidated power in more subtle ways, particularly through constitution creation.

The current constitution, written under the supervision of the military and signed into law in 2017, is designed to allow the loser of an election, next due to be held on March 24, to lead the government anyway. The prime minister is to be chosen by a joint sitting of the Senate, whose 250 members are nominated entirely by the army, and the House of Representatives, whose 500 members are directly elected. To get “elected” by the two chambers, then, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current head of the military junta, needs only 126 votes out of the 500 members of the lower house to reach the combined threshold and become prime minister.

On top of this, Thai post-coup constitutions also tend to be civilian-government-proof. According to the 2017 constitution, Thailand’s entire political system is under the control of the army, through the appointed Senate but also via an array of military-dominated oversight bodies. And in any event, the election results remain at the mercy of another possible military coup.

How have military coups become so ensconced in Thai politics?

First, there is the matter of path dependence. Data suggest that the likelihood of a coup correlates with the number of past coups; since 1932, Thailand has experienced an average of one every seven years. And for Thai generals, coup-making is a low-risk activity; no coup leader has ever been prosecuted. (Amnesty provisions for coup-makers are firmly written into each constitution.)

Second, Thai post-coup military governments rely on what the scholar Johannes Gerschewski calls the classic mix of legitimation, co-optation, and repression. Elites are co-opted, and pro-military civil-society groups, often members of the “bourgeois” middle class, support what they see as coups for democracy whose effect is to maintain the traditional social structure in which they enjoy a favorable position. For anti-military segments of the population, usually less privileged, there is immediate repression, resistance to which is muted by the memory of past bloodshed. In 1976, 1992, and 2010, people who marched against the military or pro-military governments were shot by the army, causing a cumulative toll of several hundred deaths.

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Third, military takeovers owe a debt to the king’s patronage. The regular pattern of coup-making in Thailand entails the king legalizing the coup. In 2006, the televised announcement of the coup was made in front of pictures of the king and queen, before the coup-makers were granted, in front of the cameras, a royal audience. Even in 2014, King Bhumibol, who was at the time very ill, was still part of the army’s legitimation plan. Coup leaders had a picture of themselves bowing in front of a life-size picture of the king published in major newspapers, before eventually being granted an audience and amnesty.

So is Thailand really a military dictatorship like no other—a military dictatorship under royal command?

Interesting comparisons can be drawn with political systems in which strong kings rely on influential militaries. Such countries, like Jordan or Morocco, do not experience a similar pattern of coups against elected governments, though. When they do experience coup attempts or even coup rumors, they are directed against the king. This would be unthinkable in Thailand, where coups only occur against prime ministers—the king being officially above politics.

In reality, systems in which military dictators rely on monarchs, whether strong or weak, are scarce. Such a system could perhaps have developed in 1980s Spain if the attempted 1981 military coup against the prime minister had been successful. But King Juan Carlos opposed it, and the coup failed. The same year, the king of Thailand also opposed a coup attempt against his protégé, Prem Tinsulanonda—and that coup likewise failed. In monarchies, for coups directed against a prime minister to succeed, the support of the monarch seems to be the key.

But apart from the role of the king, which gives the military its astonishing resilience, Thailand is very much a military dictatorship like any other: ruling by decree, cracking down on dissent, censoring the media, and banning public gatherings.

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