A military supporter gave a rose to a soldier in Bangkok, Thailand, May 27. The military coup was the second in eight years, overthrowing a fragile democracy.

Property rights + middle class = democracy? Not in Thailand

For many Thais, the military coup last week was a familiar scene. Although Thailand has had 12 successful coups, this one is a sharper turn, with a stronger ideological element.

In a lush downtown park, where antigovernment protesters had camped out for months, the city’s joggers are back, pounding the paved paths. Glass-and-steel towers loom overhead, as does an elevated train line. As they pass, the joggers wave at the older men and women who gather daily to play chess.

At a nearby intersection, the sidewalks groan with food vendors serving spicy sausages to lunchtime office workers and tourists. Soldiers are nowhere to be seen. The only sign that Thailand is under military rule is a slogan in red paint daubed on a wall: “Against the Coup.”

For the retirees in the park, it’s an old story. Since 1932, the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand, formerly Siam, the country has seen 12 successful military coups, most recently in 2006. Each time, a group of officers seize power, tear up the Constitution, and start over. Most coups are bloodless and telegraphed in advance, allowing ousted leaders to flee into exile or sue for peace.

Only the two-step approach of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current putsch leader, deviated from this script. After months of political instability, he declared martial law May 20 and then summoned rival political factions for talks. Two days later, amid deadlock at the negotiating table, he declared himself leader of a new junta, the National Council for Peace and Order.  

After receiving royal endorsement, Prayuth promised political reforms but set no timetable for holding elections and handing over power. His junta has detained scores of politicians and activists from all sides, while censoring local media and blocking some foreign broadcasts.  

Plus ça change. But for all its familiarity, this coup represents a much sharper turn for Thailand than previous putsches that replaced one military clique with another, barely rippling the surface of daily life. “The explanations for many coups in Thailand have centered on factionalism within the military. This coup has a real ideological component,” says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

By seizing power now, the military has stepped into a bitter, winner-takes-all political conflict that for nearly a decade has polarized society along class and regional lines. While the generals present themselves as neutral arbiters, the coup represents a smackdown of an elected government and a victory for protesters whose campaign had fizzled.

At its simplest, the conflict pits mostly rural supporters of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra against a conservative elite in Bangkok that resents and fears his money-driven brand of populism. An ailing, highly revered king, and intense jockeying for power after his reign, both inside the palace and in the military itself, adds to the intrigue. (See related story.)

Amid this intense polarization, Prayuth had resisted months of pressure from aristocrats and retired officers to stage a coup and insisted publicly that politicians needed to work out their disagreements. Sources familiar with his thinking say he’s also mindful of the poor performance of the government appointed in 2006 by the previous junta and the damage done to the Army’s reputation.  

Prayuth’s ability to steer a middle path – and hammer out an inclusive political settlement while tamping down public dissent – depends both on finding credible civilian partners and on convincing Thais that his is a temporary rule. “He needs to level the playing field and give it back,” says a highly placed civilian who requested anonymity.  

Prelude to a coup 

The latest unrest began last November when then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Mr. Thaksin, tried and failed to pass an amnesty bill that would have exonerated her exiled brother, who fled a 2008 conviction for abusing his power.

Opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban seized on anger over the bill to fuel large demonstrations that led Ms. Yingluck to dissolve parliament. Mr. Suthep’s faction then barricaded polling stations to prevent voting in a Feb. 2 election, which was later annulled, leaving Thailand in political limbo.

As tensions rose, partisan media channels fed mutual suspicion between rival factions, while a shadowy militia fired grenades into protest camps and clashed in the streets. Suthep defied an arrest warrant and occupied government buildings, while a controversial May 7 court ruling forced Yingluck and other ministers to resign, leaving a weak caretaker administration.

As the government’s writ faltered, so did Thailand’s economy, the second largest in Southeast Asia. It shrank in the first quarter of 2014. Tourism – a source of income for millions – is expected to slide further as foreign embassies issue travel warnings. The US government has also suspended its modest military aid program to Thailand, a non-NATO treaty ally.

Yet Thailand is much more than tropical beaches: It’s a vital cog in global supply chains. It produces around one-third of all computer hard drives and is the world’s top exporter of sugar and, until recently, rice. Its auto sector is the largest in Southeast Asia and has spawned a thriving spare-parts industry.

These economic strengths – and American-led aid programs – underpinned Thailand’s rapid transformation since the 1960s into a middle-income country that scores highly on global rankings for public health and other indicators. Between 1970 and 2012, annual gross domestic product growth averaged 7.7 percent. Life expectancy at birth in 1970 was 62; it now averages 77, only two years shy of the US average. 

This presents a paradox: As societies grow more prosperous and a property-owning middle class takes root, some form of representative democracy usually emerges. But the strongest antidemocratic voices in Thailand are those of status-conscious middle-class voters in Bangkok, who reject majority rule. Conversely, relatively prosperous farmers and blue-collar urbanites champion democracy.

“The countryside is materially much more prosperous, especially in the case of those households with family members working in Bangkok. We’re seeing a huge lower middle class in Thailand that believes in elections and can pursue its goals through elections. The problem is there are two middle classes,” Mr. Montesano says.

Middle-class voters in Bangkok, and protesters bused in from the relatively prosperous south, were the backbone of Suthep’s movement to replace an elected government with a “People’s Council.” They cheered the coup as a way to drive out corrupt politicians.   

“I was pleased when I heard the news about the coup. It felt like a victory for us,” says Chanchaya Kannasoot, a receptionist at a multinational advertising agency in Bangkok who joined several anti-Yingluck rallies. She says that Suthep’s followers “behaved badly” but argues that their tactics were necessary to force change and “restart the system.”

As for elections, Ms. Chanchaya, who has a graduate degree, is blunt about the prospects for the opposition. “We can’t win democratically. We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work,” she explains, blaming corrupt politicians for buying rural votes. Once in power, these politicians allegedly recoup their investment from taxpayer funds. 

'Uneducated bumpkins'

Bangkok media outlets routinely sneer at “uneducated” bumpkins for selling their votes for the equivalent of $15. Conservative academics have argued that such distortions mean that a one-man, one-vote representational democracy doesn’t work in Thailand and that the powers of elected officials must be diluted. 

Behind this rejection of majority rule is simple math: Parties that poll well in the populous north and northeast don’t need Bangkok’s votes. The northeast, a hotbed of pro-Thaksin “red shirts,” accounts for 1 in 3 seats in parliament. By uniting these seats into a single voting bloc, and redirecting public spending away from the capital, Thaksin and his successors built what appeared to be a permanent majority.

This bloc has determined every election since 2001, including those held under military-backed governments. When he ran for a second term in 2005, Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, became Thailand’s first elected premier to complete a full term. But his landslide victory – and accusations of majority-rule overreach – set the stage for his comeuppance.

In a similar sequence to recent events, massive protests in 2006 over the sale of Thaksin’s telecoms business resulted in a snap election in which the Democrat Party refused to run. The military eventually stepped into the power vacuum, citing the risk of violence.

The junta dissolved Thaksin’s party, froze his assets, and wrote a new constitution, with checks on the power of elected officials. But when it held elections the following year a pro-Thaksin coalition swept to victory, defying the capital’s power brokers.  

“People in Bangkok feel threatened. Once they could control politics. Now they have to compete with people in the villages who they can no longer control,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

And it’s not just villagers who are challenging for political power. Indeed, the typical Thaksin supporter is likely to live in a town or city, while still having family ties to the countryside.  

'We want to vote'

Samroy Srangkarnnog hasn’t yet joined the middle class. But her children might. Born to farmers in northern Thailand, she married and moved to the outskirts of Bangkok where she worked for 20 years as a cleaner. 

On a recent afternoon, she stood with two friends on a walkway above Victory Monument, a Bangkok landmark. A crowd of anti-coup protesters had gathered below. Ms. Samroy and her friends, who all wore black, though their political allegiance is red, pulled out their cellphones to take photos of the illegal rally.   

“I’m against the coup because they are removing our right to a democratic system,” she says. 

As a Yingluck supporter, she was dismayed when Yingluck was removed from power, though Samroy admits that the former government had its failings, including corruption. 

But a coup isn’t the answer. “All parties have corruption, and this is not the way to clean things out. We would prefer the decision was put to a democratic vote. We want to vote and for our votes to count,” she says.

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