How Thailand Became the World’s Last Military Dictatorship
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.