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November 23, 2012

The Idiot’s Guide to Thai Elite Coups

As of its latest proclamation, the anti-democracy movement Pitak Siam stated that the goal of its November 24 demonstration in Bangkok is to force the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign. Even Pitak Siam knows that a government elected by large margins less than eighteen months ago will not find a demonstration of (at best) a few tens of thousands of people a compelling enough reason to resign, especially given its robust majority in parliament and strong support in opinion polls. The idea that a small minority should trump the will of the majority of the electorate does not wash in twenty-first century Thailand. This is not your great-grandfather’s old Siam.

Pitak Siam’s aging leaders were more honest about their plans a few weeks ago, before they were compelled to change their tune by the ridicule their earlier public statements have earned them. Before telling reporters that Thailand should be sealed off from the rest of the world and, in his words, “frozen” like two of its neighbors were in the good ol’ days of Pol Pot and Ne Win, General Boonlert Kaewprasit conceded that “a coup is the only way to topple the government.”

By implication, Pitak Siam’s mission is to create the conditions in which a coup can take place. At a minimum, that requires getting enough people to participate in the demonstrations—not to topple the government directly, but to provide some grounds for others to claim that they had to remove the government because “the people” no longer wanted it. This kind of claim will no doubt be trumpeted by much of the Bangkok media and (unintentionally) supported by the international press, whose idea of Thailand often does not extend far beyond the views of Bangkok elites (for a fresh example, look no further than this).

The other ingredient required for a coup is a degree of violence and disorder in the streets. From Pitak Siam’s point of view, unrest serves two purposes: first, it undermines the government with Bangkok residents, expected to blame the government for any lapse in security; second, it provides an excuse for the elected government to be removed on the pretext that order must be restored, or otherwise induce the public to reluctantly trade democracy for security (again!).  This is essentially the same strategy that the PAD used in 2008, which is possibly the reason why groups such as the religious cult Santi Asok and its fanatical “Dharma Army” are providing much of Pitak Siam’s muscle. Given this government’s popularity, it is likely that Pitak Siam will need far more people than the PAD did a few years ago. The Democrat Party has been working hard to mobilize its own supporters, hoping to provide the demonstrations with the requisite numbers.

Beyond this, the agenda is open-ended, as coups in Thailand can come in many guises. Gen. Boonlert has already expressed his personal preference for a military coup, arguing that the country needs soldiers to lead it. The military also has the weaponry required to deal with any opposition to the coup and enforce the kind of “deep-freeze” that Boonlert advocates. A military coup, however, is the riskiest kind of coup, especially in this context. Unlike 2006, the military is likely to face massive resistance. Unlike 2006, moreover, world leaders seem to have wised up to what is happening in Thailand, and are therefore unlikely to offer would-be coup-makers the same tacit cooperation they enjoyed six years ago.

Should the generals not have the stomach to stage a coup, Pitak Siam and its backers can still hope for a “judicial coup.” If the conditions are right, the Constitutional Court can always be counted on to “cook up” a rationale for removing the government, as it did twice in 2008. The most intriguing possibility, however, is that we will see a new kind of coup. For the lack of a better word (after eighty years and eighteen coups, most of the good ones are taken), it could be called an “administrative coup” or a “senatorial coup.”

A day after Pitak Siam’s demonstration, the government is scheduled to face a no-confidence debate. The no-confidence motion filed by the Democrat Party will likely go nowhere, as the government has the numbers in the House of Representatives to easily defeat it. Besides, the Democrats’ case is so weak that other opposition parties might ultimately decide to side with the government. The major threat comes from the Senate. The Senate does not hold no confidence votes. However, this time the Democrat Party has filed motions of impeachment against Prime Minister Yingluck, Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, and Deputy Interior Minister Chatt Kuldiloke. Under a procedure set out in Articles 270-274 of the Constitution, the Senate has forwarded the cases to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which is now considering the request. If, after conducting its investigation, the NACC recommends impeachment, the Senate can remove the Prime Minister from her position by a supermajority of sixty percent.

Similar initiatives have failed in the past, but this route cannot be entirely discounted, particularly if Pitak Siam and its allies succeed in their attempt to weaken the government by fomenting unrest. The NACC is well known for its partisanship, while the half-appointed Senate exists for no other reason than to limit democracy. Between the appointed members and elected members close to the Democrat Party, it is conceivable that the Senate could muster the supermajority required, especially if the invisible hand applies the same kind of pressure that made Abhisit Vejjajiva Prime Minister in 2008. If the establishment is desperate to remove the government, it might just fall upon the NACC and the Senate to do so.

Some have criticized the Thai government for taking the threat too seriously. Indeed it seems hard to fathom that Pitak Siam and its allies would be so foolish as to try to pull off another coup, which is certain to turn into an unmitigated disaster. Given Thailand’s recent history and continuing potential for violence, however, this government cannot afford to underestimate Pitak Siam, especially given the group’s fanaticism, the funds at its disposal, and its deep ties with the Thai establishment. When a man with connections as impeccable as Vasit Dejkunjorn warns the government that it might end like Gaddafi’s, thereby threatening Thailand’s duly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with murder, the government has no choice but to take him seriously. The panic that has spread among some of Pitak Siam’s backers in the Royal Thai Army and the Democrat Party upon realizing that Thailand’s regime of impunity is crumbling on top of them makes their actions all the more dangerous and unpredictable.

If the last seven years have taught us anything, it is that the extremists behind Pitak Siam are prepared to take the country down with them if necessary. This government was elected by the people to prevent them from doing so.

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