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Thailand is addicted to coups. Billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was booted out in 2006. Today in THailand, his proxy Red Shirts supporters, members of the UDD, continue to protest. The Yellow Shirts, the PAD members, say the Red Shirts and Thaksin were anti democracy. A military crackdown in 2010 dispersed the Red Shirts supporters.

Politics In Thailand
No one can say it's the same old thing over here

"Thailand loves political leaders so much that they're always getting a new one."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic

Western countries are boring nowadays.  Take the United States.  There, a president is elected every four years.  He gets to serve his four year term, possibly get re-elected, and eventually leaves the presidential office a multi-millionaire with six figure dollar speaking gigs.  It doesn't matter if he's run the nation into debt or enriched his cronies' pockets.  Good job, bad job, or useless job -- he never gets kicked out.  In the entire 200+ year history of the United States, only two American presidents were ever impeached, and both were acquitted at trial.

Thailand doesn't waste its time with impeachment proceedings.  Between 1932 and 1992, Thailand experienced 17 coup d'etats, an average of one every three-and-a-half years.  Coups were almost as regular as an American election.  The eighteenth coup occurred in 2006 when billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed into the can.  A nineteenth coup, which would've been right on schedule in mid 2009/early 2010, almost happened between March-May 2010, as supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), most likely funded by a now exiled Thaksin, demanded the resignation of the current Thai prime minister. 

Red Shirts Thailand

Don't like your current leader?  You can always stage a coup.

 Thailand's Political System

Before 1932, Thailand was an absolute monarchy.  Whatever the king wished, he got.  Whatever he commanded, happened.  In 1932, a peaceful revolution forced the then king to grant the people their first constitution and legislature.  Thailand then became a constitutional monarchy, like Australia, Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

Coups and constitutions fit together in Thailand like peanut butter and jelly do in America.  Whenever a new government sets up shop, everyone says bye bye to the previous constitution.  Since 1932, the country has gone through seventeen charters/constitutions.  The constitutional monarchy system was preserved in all versions -- that is, the king remained in place.  The rest of the trimmings differed, and over the decades, Thailand passed through a variety of phases:  parliamentary systems, dictatorships, one house parliaments, two house parliaments, elected MP's, appointed MP's.  There's plenty of room for experimentation left, too.  Thailand hasn't yet tried a tricameral parliament or a parliamentary dictatorship.  There's still time. 

The year 1997 brought in the People's Constitution.  Thailand got two democratically elected parliamentary houses.  Not bad.  North Korea doesn't even get one.  20% of the House of Representatives - 100 members - are chosen from party lists.  The other 80% are elected from their various constituencies.  The Senate, the upper house, was granted 200 members, since reduced to 150.   76 senators are elected from each of the 75 provinces of Thailand plus the special administrative region of Bangkok.  The remaining 74 are selected by the Senate Selection Committee.   

 Western Demockracy Vs. Thailand's Deboughtcracy

A question often posed by outsiders: is the Kingdom of Thailand democratic? 

Before we attempt to answer that question, we must first analyze what the word 'democratic' means nowadays.  North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  Laos is the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  Everyone is well aware that whenever a country has the word 'democratic' in their official title, it's meant ironically.

Even in so-called democratic countries within the European Union, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, you've got to wonder if the concept of democracy is meant as purely ironic.  Officially, democratic means "with equal participation in government by all."  In 'democratic' countries, citizens elect politicians to represent them.  But as we discuss here, politicians really only represent the interests of the financial backers that got them into office, usually amounting to narrow business interests that both line the pockets of the businesses concerned as well as the politicians themselves.  In a democracy, all citizens are supposed to be equal before the law and with equal access to power.  Anyone who watched the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 and his subsequent acquittal knows that those with access to dream team legal protection are more equal before the law than those without.  

ThaksinWhen a citizen has the freedom to vote in elections deemed "free and fair", yet all candidates are backed by the same coterie of power brokers, what's left is a mockery of democracy -- or a demockracy.  Thailand doesn't qualify as a demockracy.  It's a deboughtcracy, a seemingly democratic system but one in which voters can be slavishly bought off to vote a specific way.  In Thailand, land of the baht, it'd be more appropriately called a debahtcracy.  The 1997 Constitution made voting compulsory to increase voter turn out and dilute the effects of vote buying on election results.  This election reform was a clear admission of Thailand's status as a debahtcracy, which it remains so to this day.  At the end of 2008, the Thai courts dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party, Thai Rak Thai, for vote buying.  Thaksin and his cronies, of course, deny it, but there's enough proof to document that voters were being bought off, to the tune of 200 to 2,000 baht, depending upon the type of election and where the voter resided.  Thai Rak Thai isn't the only party involved in buy offs.  The Thai Attorney-General's Office found that Thailand's Democractic Party was also busy with bribing and vote buying.  An additional 1,000B in a voter's pocket means a lot in a country where the uneducated earn as little as 4,000-6,000B per month.

In the Western demockracies, deboughtcracies are mocked as corrupt and unethical.  The reality is that the deboughtcracy is the more honest democratic farce.  At least in Thailand, everyone already knows and accepts politicians are crooked and on the take, The corruption is out there in the open for all to see if they want to.  Whereas in the West, politicians feign an image of impeccable honesty as they abuse their contacts and power to collect legal bribes/payouts/employment-for-doing-practically-nothing in the private sector after their "service" in the public sector terminates.  In deboughtcracies, everyone knows the political game is a joke from the get go.  In demockracies, it can take years after the previous stooges have vacated power for the public to realize they've been had, if they ever do. 

Demockracies and deboughtcracies are discussed in more detail here.

Thailand's Pretensions Toward Democracy

With the country becoming increasingly known internationally as the Coupdom of Thailand, Thailand can't make any pretenses to be a functioning democracy or even a demockracy. 

In demockratic nations, citizens elect corrupted leaders to "represent" them.  In nearly all cases, these leaders are permitted to remain in their offices until their terms expire, after which they must stand for election another time.  Elected governments are not thrown out or forced out before they get to serve out their terms.  In 2003, it was a huge deal for then California governor, Gray Davis, to be recalled.  As incompetent as he was, he'd been demockratically elected in 2002 and should have been able to serve out his 3-year term. 

In Thailand's recent history, when a government ain't liked, a coup takes place at any time to remove it.  No one wastes time waiting for terms to expire.  The September 2006 coup which threw out Thaksin Shinawatra's government occurred less than a month before nation-wide House elections were scheduled.  An interim constitution was drafted before the 2007 Constitution became 'permanent.'  (Any Thai constitution is liable to expire after the next coup).  Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party wasn't happy with the new constitution, but all criticism was banned.

Democracy MonumentThere is no doubt whatsoever that Thaksin and his party changed the rules while Thaksin was in office so that the Shinawatra family and their cronies became ever richer.  But guess what?  Western demockracies do the same thing to enrich the backers of the political elites.  There is also no doubt that the Democracts who took over in 2006 stacked the deck in their favor by banning Thakin's party from the upcoming election for vote-buying charges they were equally guilty of.  The Democrats didn't win the junta-administered 2007 election either.  The People's Power Party did.  The Democrats only got power, with Abhisit Vejjajiva as the prime minister, when Thailand's Constitutional Court banned the People's Power Party.  In short, the message is that if you can't win an election through vote-buying, bribes, and clever marketing, you can do so through the courts.

The Western media portrays non-democratic nations as flawed, that democracy (since perverted into demockracy) is some ultimate achievement for a nation to aspire.  Perhaps such a system doesn't export well to more conformist Asian societies until the country reaches a certain level of affluence.  Singapore is known as an illiberal socialist democracy.  While its people were able to vote for representatives, one man, Lee Kuan Yew, ran the roost from 1959-90 as Prime Minister and maintains a presence as Minister Mentor when his son took over as Prime Minister in 2004.  No one man and his family would hold such apparent power in a Western nation for this length of time.  South Korea was run, more or less, like a dictatorship until the 1980's

Recent Political Conflicts

The fact that Thailand seems to make up the political system as it goes along has had serious repercussions for the country recently.  The coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006 as prime minister is still felt today with the instability of the Thai government.   Lately, the country has gone through prime ministers more quickly than an alcoholic does whiskey shots.

Name Prime Minister # Served
Thaksin Shinawatra 23 9 February 2001 to 19 September 2006
Surayud Chulanont 24 1 October 2006 to 29 January 2008
Samak Sundaravej 25 29 January 2008 to 9 September 2008
Somchai Wongsawat 26 18 September 2008 to 2 December 2008
Chaovarat Chanweerakul 26.5 2 December 2008 to 17 December 2008
Abhisit Vejjajiva 27 17 December 2008 to 5 July 2011
Yingluck Shinawatra 28 5 July 2011 to ?

In the span of less than two-and-a-half years, the country had seen six men fill the prime minister post, one for just two weeks!

Yellow Shirts#23 got couped out. #24 was appointed by the military.  Corruption, economic mismanagement, and growth sank to new lows.  Thais had to wonder, "We had a coup to install this guy?"  #24 held on as long as he could, but eventually the government had to deliver to the people an election they constantly postponed.  #25 was booted out by the Constitutional Court for violating Thailand's conflict of interest laws:  he occasionally emceed two cooking shows.  #26, the brother-in-law of #23, watched his party dissolved by the Constitutional Court and was prohibited from entering politics for 5 years.  #26.5, officially never a real prime minister, only got the job because he was the senior ranking member left in the government after the leading party had been extinguished by the courts.  This allowed Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, a chance to grab the prime minister prize at the end of 2008.

The transitions were hardly tranquil.  As #26 occupied the premiership, many saw him, correctly, as a puppet stooge for the deposed #23 and were not happy.  On November 25, 2008, members of the People's Alliance For Democracy (PAD), otherwise known as the Yellow Shirts, stormed Bangkok's key Suvarnabhumi Airport.  No one was seriously hurt, but air traffic to and from the Kingdom ground to a halt for over a week.  Tens of thousands of travelers were stranded.  Tourism dollars stopped coming in.   A face-saving way of removing #26 from power ended the conflict for the moment. 

But it was far from completely over.  The United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the Red Shirts, weren't pleased with the way #27 assumed power, using the Thai military and the courts to its advantage.  In April 2009, during the Thai holiday of Songkran, Red Shirt violent demonstrations sprang up all over Bangkok.  The movement escalated in March 2010.  The Red Shirts called for new elections immediately.  Negotiations between the government and the protesters failed.  Protester violence increased, and a state of emergency was declared by #27 as bombs went off throughout the capital.  At one point, #27 agreed to dissolve the House and call for a new election by November 14, 2010 as long as the UDD leadership dispersed the protesters.  The UDD refused the offer.  They wanted #27 and his deputy to face legal proceedings over skirmishes on April 10 which killed 25 UDD protesters and injured 800.  #27's offer to hold November elections was taken off the table.

Central WorldTensions rose further.  Mass transit, schools, and major shopping malls were closed.  The American, British, and Dutch embassies said they were closing until further notice.  Travel advisories were issued by most countries' state departments to warn their citizens of traveling to Thailand.  It was all overblown claptrap.  Even at its worst, the situation was more of an inconvenience to foreigners than an outright danger. 

The week of May 17, 2010, with both sides still locked in a stalemate, the government began a widescale military crackdown.  The Red Shirts were to be flushed from their encampment.  To forestall further violence, the Red Shirt leadership surrendered days later.  The retreating UDD protesters burned twenty-seven buildings as they fled, including Southeast Asia's second largest department store, Central World, where Doug used to get drunk on the rooftop beer garden.  Buildings in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani in Isaan were razed as well. 

"This will not end.  It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate," promised one Red Shirt leader after the crackdown had, for the moment, sent the Red Shirts running.  There's no reason to doubt that statement.  One of Thailand's most distinguished historians, Carnvit Kasetsiri, agrees the violence will continue.  "It's not an easy job to find institutions or individuals to solve the crisis, since it has reached the point where people in Thai society no longer trust each other," he says.

The UDD movement started out with Thaksin wanting to regain control of Thailand in order to unfreeze US$1.5bn of his cash assets in Thailand.  Everyone agrees that the movement has now grown much larger than Thaksin himself.  Unless the two camps reach an agreement both can live with, the underlying causes which brought about the protests will manifest in more discord for the country.  Shinawatra's sis Yingluck winning the July 2011 elections should unfreeze Thaksin's assets and get him a fresh invite back to Thailand and offer some stability in the short term.  Coups usually don't take place after a landslide election victory.  The army swore it would honor the election results. 

You can still come over and visit.   Just don't pack any red or yellow shirts.


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Fascinating Ideas You Could Care Less About

 Thailand loves a good coup. Thaksin Shinawatra found out the hard way and got booted. His Red Shirts through their UDD Party tried to get him back into office, but the Yellow Shirts from PAD said 'No can do.' Both claim to want a democratic system. Recently, the Red Shirts got their asses kicked in a military crackdown.