Events have moved quickly in Thailand over the last few days as the military coup has detained politicians and academics as a move designed to give them “time to think.” As the naughty children are being sent to their room for behaving badly, General Prayuth Chan-ocha (the new dictator) has publicly reassured everyone that “we don’t intend to limit their freedoms.” Except for the fact that they are being held in undisclosed secret locations and that if they refuse to cooperate then their bank assets will be frozen. Prayuth has also recently received backing from the King for his assertion of power and Prayuth himself has declared his goals as restoring stability to the country.
Unless of course someone dies or it upsets half of the country and they start a government-in-exile. Neither of those scenarios has happened, yet, but Thaksin Shinawatra is planning to start an exile government though no real concrete word on how, where, or when that would happen.
However, you know things are really bad when the 7-11’s have shut down as this inane Time article purports. Because we all know that without the calming effects of a big-gulp Slurpee brain-freeze people might start to riot…
Now that you are somewhat up to speed on recent events, I’m going to try and figure out what will happen for Thailand in the long-term so bear with me as we go on a fantastic voyage of the mind. Logically there appears to be several outcomes that could occur within the next several years.
First, either the Democratic Party and its supporters or the Pheu Thai party achieve a decisive political victory and democracy begins to take deeper roots in the country. While it is an option that the Pheu Thai party wins the day, given that the military is now in control and elections are not likely to be forthcoming soon, I’ll rule this exact scenario out and get back to the role the Pheu Thai party will play in a bit.
Another fun option is that the military declares itself a dictatorship and we have Generalissimo Prayuth for life or until the next guy comes along and shoots him. Or perhaps things start getting dangerous and a few bombs here, a sprinkle of fairy dust there, and poof we get a civil war. The final option, is of course, a magical happy ending whereby all of the problems are resolved somehow and Thailand lives happily ever after.
It may be quite likely that the Democratic Party takes control given that General Prayuth has shown tendency to support their agenda previously, is currently following its stated mission of reform before election, and that the crisis itself was engineered by parties sympathetic to their cause. In the short term, the forces of fascism (yeah, I said the f word) seem to be winning. In the long term there are a few problems which include: the popular anger at the regime, the uncertain royal succession, legitimate political actors abroad, division within the military itself, international condemnation, a struggling economy, and the element of chance (or error term as the quantitative people like to call it).
The uncertain royal succession may be the trickiest point as under current law it is illegal to pretty much talk about most things related to Thai royalty. My guess would be that the current forces in power will work to declare Princess Sirindhorn as regent, but whether she will have popular approval or what type of informal authority she will hold is difficult to say. High-dependence on fossil fuel imports which are having inflationary effects on the baht (Thai currency) and increasing household debt, if not handled carefully, will also prove to be problematic.
The final big problem with this scenario is that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to violence, and violence leads to the dark side or any of the above factors could lead to civil war.
The really worrying question is: How stable is the military?
It has been reported that rank and file military officers are more sympathetic to the Shinawatra’s and the Pheu party. Any weakness or division in the military could lead to a worse situation in the south of the country where there is an ongoing insurgency; even now insurgents have taken advantage of the new uncertain situation. These divisions could be worsened by a violent confrontation between protestors and soldiers, as these are the people who have to pull the trigger if and when the time comes.
While I am no fan of dictators, it seems that if the military falls apart (the only strong institution in the country) then a long and bloody civil war with regional consequences would be much more likely. Even without the military falling apart given the high tensions all it would take is a small symbolic incident to ignite the flames of war. The United Wa State Army (a Burmese rebel group) is a good candidate for arms supplier to a pro-Shinawatra faction. I doubt that Thaksin himself would want this option as it is expensive and unproductive, but events can often run away from leaders if they can’t keep a close eye on followers.
The last possibility is peace in both the political and physical sense, a notion of which I am highly doubtful of in this instance. A foreign nation could conceivably come in to broker some agreement, as the previously mentioned Time article suggests. But any attempt at lasting peace will require strong institutions to enforce it.
Now this is where I hit upon the key issue and that is institutional stability. Democratic institutions like the senate or electoral courts are not impartial or established enough to provide a real authority to create political stability. Any attempt to broker a deal with the parties while leaving intact a severely flawed and impartial political system that has actors willing to undermine it means that such a deal will always favor one party over another as long as facts on the ground remain unchanged. The only real solution to the political turmoil is strongly institutionalized and respected civilian control over the military. As long as the military leadership feels more loyalty to vested interests in the palace rather than democratically elected leaders, then there is little chance of long term political stability.
Looking into my crystal ball, I am predicting that in the short term the military will give power to the Democratic Party and royal elite. There will be violence, but it will be restrained by Shinawatra and his family for pragmatic reasons. Eventually as popular unrest rises, elections will be held again and the Shinawatras will share power with the elites once again, but on the elite’s terms. The economy in the meantime will worsen as low growth combined with high energy prices dampens future opportunities while exposure to natural and man-made disasters increases risks. Since, people predicting things rarely check to see if they are right, should my predictions prove wrong I promise to write an article outlining why and where I went wrong.
What do you think should be done? Do you think I’m horribly wrong? Leave your comments below.
Featured Photo by Thomas Sauzedde