The World

Thailand’s Coup Culture

Thai soldiers stand guard after army chief Gen. Prayut Chan-O-Cha met with pro- and anti-government leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok on May 22, 2014. 

Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Coups always seem to come in clusters. And this week, we seem to be having a flurry of coup-related news from around the world. The ongoing chaos in Libya is starting to look more like a slow-motion coup, with the country’s interior ministry announcing today that it is throwing its support behind a renegade ex-general.

In Egypt this weekend, voters will head to the polls for an election whose result is a foregone conclusion. Barring a shocking surprise, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be elected president, fully cementing the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi last summer—an event that was described internationally as a coup, though many Egyptians object to the term. A poll this week found that a small majority of Egyptians say Morsi’s ouster was justified.  

Then there’s the continuing crisis in Ukraine, which began with the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych—an event the Russian government and media invariably describe as a Western-backed extremist coup, though it’s viewed by most people who don’t get their news from RT as a popular uprising against an increasingly autocratic ruler.  

Then, of course, there’s the most blatant case: Thailand. Earlier this week, a week after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by a court ruling, Thailand’s military declared martial law earlier, denying that a coup was taking place. But today the military made it official

The military, which had invited political leaders Thursday for a second day of talks on how to resolve the country’s political deadlock detained the meeting participants instead. The head of the army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha then announced the coup on national television, saying it was “necessary to seize power.”

Mr. Prayuth said the coup was launched “in order to bring the situation back to normal quickly” and to “reform the political structure, the economy and the society.”

Is the coup d’etat making a comeback in international politics? In short, no.

If military coups feel like a throwback to the Cold War, it’s because to a large extent they are. Research by political scientists Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov has demonstrated, the number of coups that happen around the world each year have fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War:

Depending on the outcome in Libya, Thailand is the only coup that’s happened this year. Compare that with 1964, at the height of the Cold War, when there were 12.

Coups today are also far more likely to be followed by an election rather than a long period of military rule.

Goemans and Marinov chalk up these trends in large part to the disappearance of Cold War superpower competition. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union frequently covertly or overtly supported the overthrow of left-wing or right-wing governments in the developing world and tended not to be all that concerned with the democratic credentials of the government that took its place. Today, countries that receive Western aid in particular are more likely to succumb to international pressure to resume elections. (As we’re seeing in Egypt, the resumption of elections and a true transition to democracy are very different things, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Despite the overall decline in coups as a method of political transition, a few countries do remain stubbornly coup-prone. One example is Guinea, which has faced almost annual military coup attempts in recent years. Another is Thailand, which has experienced more than a dozen successful coups over the past century.  

Political forecaster Jay Ulfelder, dubbed the “Nate Silver of coups,” produces an annual list of the countries most likely to have a coup. Guinea came in at No. 1, Thailand at No. 10.  Most of the countries at the top of the list are places like Mali, South Sudan, and Afghanistan—countries that in addition to coup risk face ongoing civil conflicts and chronic poverty.

Thailand is not a country like that. Aside from unrest associated with its ongoing political divide, which tends to take the form of street protests or riots rather than armed insurrection, it’s a relatively stable place that has experienced substantial economic growth in recent years.

So why is it as prone to coups as some of the world’s most unstable failed states?

Part of it is likely simple path-dependence: countries that have experienced coups in the recent past tend to get trapped in coup cycles.

At the moment, there’s also the country’s sharply polarized political culture. The “red shirts,” mainly rural voters from the north of the country who support Yingluck and her brother Thaksin—who was himself removed by a coup in 2006—and the “yellow shirts,” mainly urban middle-class voters who supported the ouster of both, don’t simply oppose each other politically. They view the other side as wholly illegitimate and favor their exclusion from electoral politics by any means necessary.

But Thailand’s coup culture preceded the red-yellow divide, and may have its roots in the unique role the monarchy plays in Thai politics. While Thai politics are bitterly divided, both sides venerate King Bhumibol with an ardor that’s a little difficult for foreigners to grasp, and has on a number of occasions landed them in jail. In comparison with the monarchy, electoral institutions in Thailand tend to be viewed as a bit more transitory.

The king has personally intervened to end Thai political crises in the past, and the fact that his intervention is often sought as a kind of deus ex machina when the country’s political forces are at a loggerheads likely doesn’t really help the legitimacy of civilian political institutions. 

The Australian scholar Nicholas Farrelly argues that “Thailand has largely accommodated military interventionism, especially by accepting the defence of the monarchy as a justification for toppling elected government.”

This was fully on display today, when Gen. Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, commander of the country’s armed forces, promised that the military “will protect and worship the monarchy” as it restores order.

King Bhumibol has mostly refrained from intervening in the current crisis. At 86 and in poor health, his days on the throne may be numbered. His successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is reportedly far less popular.

Beyond the current crisis, a major question for the future is whether Thailand’s recurrent coup syndrome will pass with its current monarch, or whether it’s now embedded in the country’s political culture.