A good reason to track the protests in Thailand is that they reflect how much the world has let go of a belief that military officers know best how to run a country. In the past century, no other country has had more attempted or successful coups (19) than Thailand. It is one of the few places where generals still see civilian rule and civic equality as dangerous.
On Thursday, protesters in Bangkok appeared closer to winning their struggle to have the country run by ballots and not bullets and to send the military back to the barracks. The current ruler, former army chief and coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, was forced to lift a week-old emergency declaration that allowed security forces to quash the protests with violence. Ever agile in organizing pop-up protests via social media, the demonstrators did not flinch. They surrounded the seat of government.
Other countries where generals wield a strong hand are probably watching these events closely. Scholars say the success rate of coup attempts has fallen in the past couple of decades. Today’s military-controlled governments feel greater international pressure to hold elections, even if rigged, in order to create a democratic facade and a minimum of legitimacy.
In Pakistan, an alliance of 11 political parties is demanding that the military stay out of politics. In Sudan, after last year’s protests ousted a longtime military ruler, the country is on the path to civilian rule in two years. Similar protests in Algeria have the military scrambling to stay in power. And in Mali, a recent coup was partially rolled back this month under pressure from the 55-nation African Union. Coup leaders have appointed a civilian prime minister and promised elections.
In many countries, the armed forces often display a hubris of superiority, believing they can run government better because of their discipline, organization, and moral duty to save the nation. Yet they also often fail in the messy tasks of running an economy and social programs or in reining in corruption.
In Thailand, the people have slowly awakened to the identity of being equal citizens and to the need for a democracy based on individual self-governance. As a coercive arm of the state, the Thai military, like militaries everywhere, must by its nature be controlled by civilians.
With fewer coups around the world these days, countries continue to realize that power does not lie in guns but in democratic ideals, reflected through the will of the people. That trend is playing out on the streets of Bangkok, where coups could soon be history.