'Same same, but different' is a common enough slogan printed on t-shirts in Thailand. And the coup called last week by the head of the Thai military, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, fits the tag.
The formal declaration of the coup is a high point in the slow but steady disintegration of Thai politics over the last two years. It has been a coup in slow motion.
The problem for anyone seeking to make sense of the whole mess is that there is really no decisive or determining issue impacting large numbers of people to create a groundswell of protest or contest. It is hard to interpret unfolding events when there is no clear set of issues about which there is a political contest.
What 'issues' there are largely come down to personalities. Corruption in Thailand is ubiquitous. It is as much a part of every activity and every transaction as taxation is in places like Australia. Its reach is literally everywhere and politics is just a different form of business with all the usual forms of corruption included in the political processes.
And all players follow the same rules. Both the Red Shirt leaders, supporting the Shinawatra family and the leader of the Yellow Shirt 'establishment', especially Suthep Thaugsuban, have distinguished records as people who have used public office for personal material advantage. There are no white knights in Thai politics.
What is even more disturbing is that the Crown Prince, a friend and and alleged beneficiary of the Shinawatra family, did what he could to see that the Shinawatras' party did not lose the slender grip on power that they had. By telling the military leadership two weeks ago that they could do everything up to but not including a coup, he proposed a cognation of the existing Government. If the military enacted a coup, the Government would fall for military rule to be set in place.
Well, the coup happened. After locking up the contesting parties in a room and telling them to come up with a solution to Thailand's political challenges, the political leaders remained a intransigent as ever and no solution emerged. The army decided to act and the coup flowed.
The only question now is what comes next. This time there will be a variation on 'same same, but different'.
The difference right now is indefinite rule by the military. But as has happened so many times in the last 60 years, the military rule will be followed by an election that will see the usual suspects return to Parliament, only to await another identical dynamic in five or six years.
There is now no credible person in public life in Thailand able to provide the vision and decisiveness required and a capacity to draw the nation together in a time of crisis. That used to be done by the King, who is so old and infirm that, even if he wanted to, physically and mentally he wouldn't be able to.
Royal intervention and a directive to the military is how such political boils have been lanced in the past. The Bangkok elite of old money, elements of the aristocracy and the educated middle class of Bangkok are supported by its followers from among farmers in the south of the country. They have long claimed that they are the only Thais to be trusted as loyal citizens and subjects of the King.
However, the Shinawatra party is supported by the majority of Thai workers, farmers in the populous north of the country and the middle class outside Bangkok that has emerged over the last two decades. And the Shinawatra party have embarrassed the Bangkok elite by consistently winning by good margins in the last five national elections.
The cycle of election, opposition protest, social and political instability that provokes a Royal approved military intervention underlies how immature democracy is in Thailand. There simply is not a basis for democratic life in the values, political processes, rule of law through the courts and reliable political institutions. No one can accuse the country of having an independent judiciary and the rule of law to ground a stable and sustainable democracy.
Unfortunately, in the medium term — the next five years — it will be 'same, same' unless there is a circuit breaker. That may come with the next trigger to instability which has to be set off sooner rather than later: the death of a very frail royal person.
Fr Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of the Bangkok-based UCAN Catholic news agency.
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26 May 2014
Thanks Michael for giving some shape to all the instant news reports coming out of Thailand recently. Now at least I see darkly.
26 May 2014
Thanks for the informed insight, Michael. Seems to me that corruption has become the norm for humanity regardless of country, race or political system. God bless.
04 June 2014
I respect Michael's contribution: as someone who presumably lives and works in Bangkok, he is clearly closer to the pulse than me - but I don't share his diagnosis of political immaturity in Thailand. In my experience, Thais are not lacking in political maturity. What is lacking is a common sense of national interest. Thai politics is riven by class divisions and urban/rural divisions. It resembles Cambodia pre-Khmer Rouge in that a sophisticated affluent urban class - many of whom are Sino-Thai, with Chinese merchant immigrants in c19 as ancestors - have little if anything in common with the masses of poor rural peasants. Students at universities in Bangkok understand this, but as they get older they are sucked back into the self-seeking values of the Bangkok middle-class elite. The genius of Thaksin Shinawatra was to combine student idealism and energy with the legitimate aspirations of the rural poor. He was a genuine social reformer whose power came legitimately through the ballot box, by majority vote. The Thaugsuban counter-revolution which brewed over many months of well-funded implacable street protest was designed to provoke a military intervention, and so it did. Yingluck Shinawatra did everything she could under the rules of democracy - she held new elections, she then accepted the court ruling against her
and stood down from power - but Thaugsuban's Yellow Shirts just went on demonstrating. To suggest as Michael does that there was a shared failure by both sides to come to agreement when the Army, having suspended democracy, put the two sides' leaders in a room together to me misses the point. The Army should have stood behind the elected government of the day, not tried to impose an impossible déal under pressure from a powerful political minority bent on bringing that government down by violent street protest.
I also blameThailand's friends and allies - ASEAN, US, Australia - for our silence when we might have made a difference, in those months of Thaugsuban-orchestrated instability. The Thai army might have listened, had we spoken up then for democracy in Thailand. Now, it's pointless to protest or to withhold military aid. The horse has bolted, it is too late to shut the stable door. And yes, there will be student blood in the streets again, martyrs to a failed democracy, and we will shed crocodile tears over it. This is the way of it in Thailand.