A military coup in Thailand on Thursday – the country’s 11th since 1932 – may seem like a peculiar Thai problem. Will the “land of smiles” ever get democracy right? Or is it forever burdened by the dominance of a revered monarch and a political split between the rural poor and urban elite?
Yet this coup should be treated differently from past ones for this reason: With so many Asian nations having adopted democracy or in the midst of improving one, the region cannot afford to let one of its pivotal economies slip behind in basic freedoms. Thailand is long overdue in embracing the concept of citizenship for all in its electoral politics.
The Army overthrew a government led by the Phea Thai Party, which has popular roots with the rural poor in the north and northeast. The generals claim they were preventing potential violence between competing bands of color-coded protesters. The “yellow shirt” protesters represent an urban elite that resents the political awakening of the rural poor and want an elite-guided democracy. The “red shirt” demonstrators, who represent the poor, resent how various government institutions, dominated by the elite, have twice ousted the Phea Thai Party since 2006.
The standoff on the streets has created political turmoil for six months and slowed the economy. Just how the Army will guide a transition back to civilian rule remains unclear. Perhaps King Bhumibol Adulyadej might step in and take sides, as he has done in the past. But it is just that kind of kingly rule that for decades has weakened the absorption of full democracy in Thailand.
The country’s ambivalence about full rights for all goes back to the first coup against then-King Prajadhipok. The military and elite have used the monarchy to benefit themselves. The Bangkok area receives far more of the government benefits than the northern regions. That changed in 2001 when rich businessman Thaksin Shinawatra was elected, relying in part on his money spent in helping rural farmers. After his ouster, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected. But she, too, was forced out a few weeks ago by a constitutional court.
The Thaksin dynasty may have paid for votes to win power but now the masses of poor have tasted electoral power and do not want to give it up. They are not dupes, as the elite see them, but citizens who now challenge the traditional paternalism, having been awakened to the identity of being equal citizens. Unlike in decades past, they are able to fully join in the political discourse.
Yet neither side has yet to engage each other in reasoned debate to resolve their differences and find the common mind for the common good. Both seek personal benefits from the state without recognizing that democracy requires listening to the others and then agreeing on public action.
The concept of citizen relies on that forbearance toward other’s needs, more so than a contest of power. It seeks a balance of individual autonomy and the public good. Citizenship is driven by principles first, including a respect for the democratic process, rather than material needs.
Thailand should be made aware by its friends that this cycle of coups and elections must end. All Thais deserve to be treated as citizens – and to act as citizens.