The looming end of the 68-year reign of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej has sparked a protracted struggle for control of key institutions and pillars of power, particularly in the military, the state and the business sector. A major transformation of the Thai political landscape will likely follow the king's death. With the Thai population roughly evenly divided, players from all sides are positioning themselves to protect and expand their interests ahead of the impending succession.
Though the army is the historical arbiter in Thai politics, it is not a neutral one. Its senior leadership strongly favors the so-called royalist establishment that entrenched itself throughout the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which began in 1946 and was buoyed by Cold War-era economic and defense cooperation with the United States. For decades, the United States and allies such as Japan saw Thailand as a source of free trade and stability in a war-racked region. However, with the end of the Cold War, a bloody crackdown in Bangkok in 1992 and the Asian financial crisis in 1997, among other factors, the Thai regime began to lose its preponderance.
In Thailand, as in elsewhere in Asia, political powers sought to edge the military out of the business sector in the early 1990s, opening up market space for entrepreneurs who made quick fortunes on a wave of privatization and the global technological and financial booms. The most notable example of this was former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, an outsider from the northern city of Chiang Mai who emerged as a quasi-nationalist and populist leader. The telecommunications tycoon called for pro-business and pro-rural reforms in response to the 1997 financial crisis, which he blamed on the political establishment's excessive deference to Western powers, and became prime minister in 2001. Thaksin's popularity and electoral strength seemed limitless, raising the prospect of a strongman whose party could entrench itself at the expense of the establishment.
The possibility of the elderly king dying while Thaksin still dominated the political climate posed a distinct danger to the military and its allies in the palace, the central bureaucracy, the judiciary and central and southern Thailand. Such a scenario would open a once-in-a-century opportunity for Thaksin's allies in the private sector, the police force, and the north and northeast regions to remold institutions and tilt the domestic balance of power. The Cold War regime struck back by removing Thaksin in 2006, but the coup only fueled his movement. Since then, Thailand has vacillated between anti-Thaksin, military-backed governments and democratically elected governments effectively ruled by the leader-in-exile.
A Grand Compromise?
Despite the royalist establishment's proven ability to topple pro-Thaksin governments through the courts, agencies and the military, its most powerful members, like the king, are growing old. When the current generation passes, its heirs will struggle to maintain the old regime in the face of public demands for extensive political reform. Further complicating matters are various possible splits within the monarchy. Most notably, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent to the throne despite his unpopularity with the public, may have at least some affinity with the interests of the Shinawatra family and thus with parties that threaten the longstanding Bangkok elite.
Time is running out for the establishment to ensure that Thaksin and his family are removed from politics, depriving their followers of their chief strategist and organizer. With Thaksin sidelined, the military believes, it would be better positioned to forge a grand compromise that protects the interests of the establishment and addresses the demands of the populist movement, thus avoiding a revolutionary confrontation. The timing of the latest coup reflects the military's calculations on the long-term concerns over succession, as well as the short-term considerations about civil strife, public security and economic stability.
The military hopes to bring about an agreement between the factions that allows for a new government and future elections on the basis of removing Thaksin's family and key loyalists from politics and strengthening constitutional restraints on democratic elections through the judiciary and other agencies. Such a compromise is not as infeasible as it may sound. Thai politics have always been marked by a high degree of fluctuation punctuated by periodic settlements that have prevented the country from truly falling apart. Moreover, the past few years have shown how such a compromise could work.
From the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party's election in mid-2011 until late 2013, the party ruled the country relatively effectively, with tacit support from the military. Only when the party pushed for sweeping constitutional revisions and political amnesty for Thaksin and his allies did the royalist establishment launch a counterattack. It forced the government to schedule elections, nullified the elections through boycott and judicial rulings, halted the government's main policy initiatives (including a massive stimulus package), ejected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin's sister) and laid the groundwork for the May 22 coup.
The army and the royalist establishment believe that now is a uniquely advantageous moment to push for a comprehensive purge of Thaksin's influence before the royal succession. Stratfor sources indicate that the military will likely act aggressively, as it did after the 1991 coup, in making arrests and confiscating financial assets in order to neutralize pro-Thaksin business and political networks. In recent months, Thaksin has publicly offered to remove his family from politics in exchange for political reforms. Such promises are not unprecedented, but they could suggest that the former prime minister believes that a more extensive expulsion of his supporters is coming. Moreover, the army may fear that a lack of resolve and ambition now would leave the Thaksin forces with a greater influence during the transition period following succession. Employing harsh political tactics while the army controls the government and suppresses the media will heighten the risks of violent resistance and cause greater international concern for Thai stability.
Provincial Conflicts and Prolonged Instability
Still, the army may not be able to forge a compromise between the factions, regardless of whether Thai army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the chair of the ruling council, continues to push forward on a peace process. Though polls showed that around 76 percent of the public favored the military's imposition of martial law on May 20 as a way to end seven months of political protests and crippled governance, the coup may not prove so popular. It will ultimately aggravate the national conflict, as it once again demonstrates the Thai establishment's refusal to allow a democratically elected party to rule.
Initially, there will be some low-level outbursts of protests, violence and vandalism, especially in the rural provinces. Already, a small group of protesters reportedly clashed with the army in Chiang Mai. The bigger question is whether supporters of the ousted government will attempt a broader uprising against the coup. They may choose, as they did in 2007, to retreat and lay low under military pressure while planning a future comeback and demanding elections that they would likely win. This scenario would involve a period of post-coup calm but portend eventual mass anti-government campaigns reminiscent of those in 2009 and 2010. These campaigns would likely involve not only mass protests in Bangkok, but activism and subversion in the provinces as well.
Provincial "Red Shirt" insurgents would have limited capabilities against the army, which is generally professional and capable. But an army crackdown in the pro-Thaksin regions, reminiscent of violent anti-communist purges during the Cold War, would greatly exacerbate national divisions. It would also risk dividing loyalties within the army ranks and likely besmirch the military with accusations of human rights violations against farmers and the poor.
The populist pro-Thaksin movement could well prepare a pseudo-secessionist movement as a means of organizing its activities and warning the royalists against pushing too far, though the possibility of outright civil war is very low. Such a movement would heighten political intimidation, symbolic violence and disobedience that could stretch the army thin in its ability to maintain security without committing blunders that would provoke a public backlash. At the moment, there is no intelligence of major resistance developing in the provinces, but as circumstances evolve, provincial resistance and military responses will remain important to monitor.
Much is riding on the military's ability to manage the interim period in a way that does not provoke an uncontrollable backlash from the populist forces. This will depend on the extent of the purge of Thaksin allies, the duration of direct military rule (after a year it will become increasingly difficult), and the impact of the international backlash (which was relatively small following the 2006 coup).
But since the army and royalist establishment believe that now is the time to solidify institutional power ahead of succession, they can be expected to act forcefully and to test their limits. Though the pro-Thaksin forces will be vulnerable to a crackdown, their popular power is too great to back down. Thus following a short period of relative calm, instability could rise once again. Even after the return of civilian rule, the overarching conflict will not be solved. Indeed, only after the succession occurs and a new order is established — a process likely lasting several years — can Thailand find a more enduring peace.