Educated city-dwelling elites in Thailand despised their democratically-elected leader, and many welcomed the country’s 2014 military coup. Are there lessons here for America?
In the centre of Bangkok, at a large roundabout, stands what is perhaps the most ironic monument in Thailand today.
The Democracy Monument, built in 1939 to celebrate the 1932 Siamese revolution which established a constitutional monarchy, attracts few tourists. It is much less of a landmark than its counterpart the Victory Monument not far away, which commemorates the 1941 Thai victory over the French.
As I stand alone below the four solid spikes of the edifice, I see cars and motorbikes wiz by without a glance. Perhaps they are too uncomfortable to look. Thailand has not had a democracy for two years. And if you ask Bangkokians, they’re just fine with that.
In the Spring of 2014, the city was brought to a standstill. Thousands of Thai protestors, called the “yellow shirts”, sat immovable on the streets and in the airports. “Shut down Bangkok” was the hashtag-ready name for their movement, and it succeeded in doing just that.
The target of their anger was Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been in power since 2011. She had few friends in Bangkok. Like her brother Thaksin, who was prime minister for five years before her, she had been elected on the back of rural, largely under-educated voters outside the capital. There was a feeling that her brother, who had gone into exile in 2006 after being convicted of corruption and ousted in a military coup, was still pulling the strings from his exile outside the country.
The populist Shinawatras were loathed by much of the country’s educated classes, particularly in Bangkok. They considered them a disaster for the economy who were maintaining power by feeding lies to gullible people, and cloaking themselves in Thai nationalism. They wanted her gone, and they didn’t care how.
And so, when the Thai military staged a coup against Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, suspending democracy and installing a military regime, the yellow shirts were satisfied. The protestors went home, and before long the city was quiet once again.
Two years later, that 'National Council for Peace and Order' regime is still in power. Few in Bangkok seem to mind. In fact most people I asked say they prefer the military regime to democracy. There was no other way to bring down the corrupt populist rule of the Shinawatras, they said. Life has gone back to normal, and there are few reminders that the military is in power.
Given the recent history of Thailand, in which the country has gone back and forth between democracy and military rule, it’s perhaps not surprising that this all seems like politics as usual to people here. It is, of course, unusual to us in the West.
An American first
Given the recent events in my country, as an American it was this particular aspect of Thailand that fascinated me most during my sabbatical living here for the past month.
I wrote back in December that I believed the United States is quite possibly heading for a military coup. That blog entry got quite a bit of attention, with many people thinking my suggestion was absurd. A coup in the United States? Simply unthinkable. Such an event has never happened in the world’s oldest democracy, and surely couldn’t even now.
But since I wrote that text, the evidence that we are heading in that direction has only mounted. Trump has repeatedly antagonized both the US intelligence services and the generals. This week’s row between Trump and FBI Director Comey, in which the latter has walked right up to the line of calling the president a liar over his claims that he was bugged by Barack Obama, is only the latest conflict. As more and more circumstantial evidence builds of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia, the White House and the intelligent services have been pitted against each other.
And while it might seem like Trump is surrounding himself with military allies, he is not surrounding himself with the ones that matter. The people he is bringing on are all retired military officers. Mike Flynn, who has now been forced to resign from his position as national security advisor after it emerged he had secret contacts with the Russian government, was always viewed by the current military chiefs as unhinged and possibly dangerous.
Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been sidelined in decision-making. Trump took the astonishing step shortly after taking office of removing the military chiefs from the top tier of the national security council, replacing them instead with the alt-right propagandist Steve Bannon. Just weeks later, he blamed the military for a botched raid in Yemen that he authorised. Now, we are getting news that the military has started acting without consulting Trump at all.
As I wrote in December, the military is probably the only institution that can unseat Trump, because it is the only American institution which has public approval. The US Congress currently enjoys a 7% approval rating in the US. The president has 38% approval. The judicial branch has a 42% approval rating, and only 32% of Americans say they trust the US media. But the military? 74% of Americans say they have full confidence in the military. It is the only trusted American institution left.
And while polls show that the military rank-and-file largely supported Trump over Clinton in last year's election, history shows that the political leanings of soldiers doesn't always matter much in coups. It's about who commands loyalty - your military commander, or your civil commander.
Only the generals can stop a war
What might be the instigator of a coup taking place in the United States? Well, what if the president ordered the military to carry out an act the generals felt was unconscionable, or would put the security of the United States and/or its allies in jeapordy? The generals are the only ones who can stop him.
While there are some checks and balances on the US president when it comes to domestic policy, there are almost none when it comes to foreign affairs. This is not the way the US government was designed, but it is the way it has evolved over the past half-century. If Donald Trump wants to nuke Finland, Donald Trump can nuke Finland. There is no way for the Congress, the courts, or anyone else to legally stop him.
America has never had anything even resembling a coup in its 250-year history. But that in itself is unusual. The United States’ neighbors to the South are certainly no strangers to coups. Nor are countries in Europe, Asia or Africa. It is the lack of coups in the US that is strange. Why should America be so different from the rest of the world?
Even before the turbulence of 2016, a surprisingly high number of Americans said they might support a coup. A YouGov survey in September 2015 found that 29% of Americans could imagine supporting a military coup in Washington, while 41% said they could not. This was before the humiliating blow dealt to American democracy in 2016.
Of course, ‘coup’ isn’t a very nice word. In recent history we think of the coup in Egypt in 2013, which removed a (possibly dangerous) democratically-elected Islamist president to the delight of liberal Egyptians, only to replace him with their own very familiar brand of military tyranny. Or we think of the failed military coup in Turkey earlier this year, whose failure has resulted in a brutal crackdown by the country’s democratically-elected strongman president Erdogan. It's not something Americans should want to emulate, right?
Other coups work out more peacefully, as in Thailand. Of course, the Thai situation’s relevance to the US is limited. This is a country with a long history of military coups, starting in the early 20th century as Thailand made its jerky transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. This goes a long way in explaining people’s quick acceptance of military rule.
To believe that US democratic traditions make it immune to such a development today would be naive. Never has public trust in American democratic institutions been lower than it is today. That trust was already low before 2016, and the November election may have been the final blow from which this trust cannot be rebuilt.
After an ugly, farcical election campaign that dragged on for two years, the presidency was handed to someone who did not win the most votes - because of archaic American democratic traditions. Even more disturbingly, it now appears that the election was easily manipulated by a hostile foreign power - possibly with the collusion of the Trump campaign itself. How can people maintain their trust in the American democratic system after such developments?
In 2014, people in Bangkok had also lost faith in their country’s democratic structures. For a decade years Bangkokians had watched as the Shinawatra family manipulated voters. They were then flabergasted when, after Thaksin was charged with corruption, his sister was able to persuade a majority of Thais to put her in power and effectively continue Thaksin's reign. Thai democracy, many Bangkokians concluded, was not working. So when the military came in and said they were suspending democracy, many here in Bangkok didn’t feel like they would miss it.
I can’t help but wonder if people in New York would feel similarly unsentimental about American democracy at this point. If the military launched a coup, promising to restore democracy in a short time after calling a non-partisan constitutional convention to reform the voting and governing process, would the urban elites be receptive?
If the alternative is either leaving Trump in power, or continuing with an electoral system that seems to be stacked against the economically productive, educated areas of the country, I think a lot of people would be open to what the generals suggest. But could they trust them to return power to the people?
On this front, military regimes don’t have a very good track record. As we can see now in Egypt, even when they promise it is only a temporary arrangement, power is only pried from generals with great difficulty. But there are other examples of military coups restoring real democracy, such as in Portugal when the dictatorship was overthrown. Turkish history also has such examples. Americans are taught to always think of military coups in a negative light. But historically, sometimes they have been quite productive.
Do Thais think that the generals are going to return power to them any time soon? Do they even want them to? Nobody I talked to seemed to be in any hurry for a return to democracy - though this may have been out of fear of saying anything that could be perceived to be against the military.
For their part, Thailand’s military leadership originally said they would restore democracy by this year. But drafting of the long-promised new constitution has been stalled, and democracy doesn't seem like it's on the way back any time soon.
Law and order
Despite many Bangkokians' insistence that the difference between life under democracy and life under military rule is imperceptible, there was one giant noticeable difference in Bangkok - the crackdown on vice. The generals want to reform the city’s image of sex and sin, and they have imposed a series of restrictions which are now catching a lot of tourists by surprise.
All bars and clubs now have to close at 2am, save for a very few who purchase late licenses to be open till 4. Alcohol cannot be purchases between the hours of 2pm and 5pm, and cannot be served or sold at all on Buddhist holidays. For several weeks immediately after the coup, alcohol could not be sold at all.
The rules sometimes feel arbitrary - more about reminding people who is in control than achieving an actual policy objective. When I was in Phuket several weeks ago, all of the bars and clubs had to shut down at 1am. This was not normal, I was told, but was only for that weekend because “the military is in town”. At 1am everything closed without explanation. People went to the beach where a line of tanks greeted them. It didn’t feel menacing, indeed I imagine most of the tourists were unaware of the reason for the early closing.
Authorities are also performing spot checks on cars driving through the Bangkok at night, pulling passengers out of cars, demanding ID, and performing a very thorough body search for drugs. They appear to be targeting taxis carrying tourists - this happened to me three times in the month I was here.
There is generally not much of a military presence on the streets - the police are still the ones in charge of patrolling. When I brought up the military regime with other Western tourists most were surprised - they had no idea there had been a coup or that the country was under military administration.
In the view of many Bangkokians I spoke to, these vice laws are a small price to pay for an end to the endemic corruption in the democratic government. Their faith in Thai democracy has become so damaged, that they now believe giving up some liberties is a fair trade-off for a restoration of calm.
“Every day we would turn on the news and hear about a new scandal," one Thai person told me. “Everyone was just tired of it, she was a national embarrassment. With the new regime, we don’t have to worry all the time about the uncertainty. If we go back to democracy, we’re just going to have more disorder.”
I couldn’t help but notice that this feeling of constant anxiety, embarrassment and insecurity sounded a lot like what my American friends are now expressing on social media. What price would they be willing to pay to put an end to the anxiety in America?