This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
After declaring martial law on Tuesday, May 20, the Thai military announced a full-fledged coup two days later. The putsch followed seven months of massive street protests against the ruling Pheu Thai government identified with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The power grab by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha came two weeks after Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was ousted as caretaker prime minister by the country’s Constitutional Court for “abuse of power” on May 7.
The Thai military portrayed its seizure of power as an effort to impose order after two rounds of talks between the country’s rival factions failed to produce a compromise that would provide Thailand with a functioning government.
Deftly Managed Script
The military’s narrative produced few takers. Indeed, many analysts saw the military’s move as a coup de grâce to Thailand’s elected government, following what they saw as the judicial coup of May 7.
It is indeed difficult not to see the putsch as the final step in a script deftly managed by the conservative “royalist” establishment to thwart the right to govern of a populist political bloc that has won every election since 2001. Utilizing anti-corruption discourse to inflame the middle class into civil protest, the aim of key forces in the anti-government coalition has been, from the start, to create the kind of instability that would provoke the military to step in and provide the muscle for a new political order.
Using what analyst Marc Saxer calls “middle class rage” as the battering ram, these elite elements forced the resignation of the Yingluck government in December; disrupted elections in February, thus providing the justification for the conservative Constitutional Court to nullify them; and instigated that same court’s decision to oust Yingluck as caretaker prime minister on May 7 on flimsy charges of “abuse of power.” Civil protest was orchestrated with judicial initiatives to pave the way for a military takeover.
The military says that it will set up a “reform council” and a “national assembly” that will lay the institutional basis of a new government. This plan sounds very much like the plan announced in late November by the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which would place the country for a year under an unelected, unaccountable reform panel.
The military’s move has largely elicited the approval of Suthep’s base of middle-class supporters. Indeed, it has been middle-class support that has provided cover for the calculated moves of the political elites. Many of those that provided the backbone of the street protests now anticipate the drafting of an elitist new order that will institutionalize political inequality in favor of Bangkok and the country’s urban middle class.
The Thai Middle Class: From Paragons to Enemies of Democracy
The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once celebrated the Thai middle class as paragons of democracy. But in recent years, middle-class Thais have transmogrified into supporters of an elitist, frankly antidemocratic agenda. Today’s middle class is no longer the pro-democracy middle class that overthrew the dictatorship of Gen. Suchinda Krapayoon in 1992. What happened?