Will Democratization Continue in Thailand?

Executive Summary 

This paper examines the history of Thailand’s extended democratization process, considering the roles of civil society and the military, in order to offer an explanation of the current civil divide, resurgence of unrest, and military intervention on May 22, 2014. Since 1932, when Thailand began its transition from an absolute monarchy to a democratic state, the military has played a critical role leading semi-authoritarian regimes during various periods. Civil society developed slowly in the presence of the semi-authoritarian state, not coming to the forefront until the social movements of 1991. The growth of civil society led to mass mobilization and democratic transition in 1992, followed by a period of globalization and economic growth. The strength and integration of the military into Thai society kept the military relevant in the political society and led to coups in 2006 and again in May 2014. Economic inequality has served as a key instrument of the growing civil divide. Events since the 2006 coup have been cyclic in nature and without political reform and cooperation between the populist “red shirts” and the opposition “yellow shirts”, Thailand’s democratization process will fail to progress. The unrest between these factions of Thai society fosters the space necessary for the military to continue to intervene in the democratic process. Through recent events, Thailand has demonstrated the potential to transition to a stable democracy through the development of a moderate political party, and this course of action should be pursued as a means of intervention into the current political cycle that is preventing further democratization.


Globalization since the early 1990’s has had a significant effect on civil society and on the military in Thailand. Economic growth in the early 1990’s led to increased bureaucracy and corruption that ultimately contributed to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. In addition to economic growth, Thailand made significant advances in its democratization process through the adoption of the its constitution of 1997, which granted increased freedoms in civil society and led to social movements that had been restricted in the former authoritarian governments. Driven by popular support, the new constitution re-engineered the political system in order to reduce the power of bureaucracy, increase accountability of government officials, and undercut the old monopolies in business and government. The reforms led to the formation a diverse set of political parties, and gave rise to the populists political party around Thaksin Shinawatra. As a wealthy member of the business elite, Thaksin gained political power through populist policies that supported the rural farmers in the northern portion of the country. The economic policies of the democratic government polarized the expanding middle class and set the minority middle class and southern population against the popularly elected government. Civil unrest by the middle class and growing social movements led to military interventions and a series of democratic elections. In this article, I will examine the growth of civil society and the interaction of the military in the Thai political system over the past two decades to determine the potential for further democratization.

The Kingdom of Thailand, a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government, is unique in the region because of its independence and insulation from global trends that affected its neighboring countries. It is the only country in the region not colonized by Europeans; it avoided taking part in communist revolutions; and it has maintained its monarchy. Thailand’s path to democracy began in 1932, when it transitioned from an absolute monarchy to the constitutional monarchy. This route to democratization has been a troubled one. The country has endured 25 elections, 19 attempted military coups, some bloodless and some bloody, and 12 of these coups were successful in transitioning power. From 1932 to 1990 Thailand has been ruled primarily by military regimes, with intermittent periods of democratic rule. The strong military and bureaucratic elites controlled Thai politics and prevented the development of democratic institutions.

Starting in 1932, the military dominated because it was the best-organized group within the kingdom. The military and the country as a whole benefited from the United States Cold War strategy, where it became a democratic partner and was exposed to globalization and economic tutelage. Through a strong U.S. military bilateral relationship, the Thai military received foreign military financing and foreign military schooling for its officer corps. In comparison to the military’s strength, the intermittent civilian constitutional rule lacked efficiency. According to Dr. Neher, a scholar and specialist in Southeast Asian politics, “By decrying civilian ineptness, corruption, and malfeasance, and by proclaiming threats against the nation’s sovereignty, military leaders were able to persuade the bureaucratic polity that the military could do a better job of governing.” During this period, multiple coups consolidated power for the military and Civilian Prime Ministers where sometimes selected by the military to soften the image of the regime.

The first organized movement of the populace for democratic rule came in the form of a student-led uprising in 1973. The causes of discontent included a widespread sentiment that the military regimes rule was increasingly led by its corrupt self-interest, factionalism, and political / economic mismanagement. This discontent, combined with an organized student population supported by the citizenry and the King, led to a short lived democratic transition. The revolt led to the creation of a two-house parliamentary system and the creation of political parties. Elections held in January of 1975 saw the participation of forty-two political parties.

The underdeveloped political institutions were unable to manage the raging inflation leading to increasing numbers of demonstration and strikes. When combined with the communist movements in neighboring countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the military seized the opportunity to reorganize, and based on the populations values of security and stability, overthrew the elected government in the bloodiest coup in Thai history in October of 1976. The revolt did not end in a democratic Thailand, but it did instill the sense of democracy in the population. From 1976 to 1991 the military maintained a loose control of the government. The government drifted towards a more open form and included the constitution of 1978. During this period, four national elections occurred and two unsuccessful coups were attempted.

In 1991, Army Commander-in-Chief Suchinda Kraprayoon staged a coup of the elected government on the grounds that democratization had “not ended personalism, factionalism or corruption.” Martial law was established and the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC) took control of the government. Understanding the influence that the democratization process had throughout the country, the NPKC immediately appointed an interim Prime Minister and called for new elections. The NPKC established a new political party and allocated government funds to fund their party to victory in the upcoming election. In an election rampant with vote-buying, the NPKC’s party won the election and General Suchinda became the Prime Minister. Subsequently, massive anti-Suchinda, pro-democracy demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Thai citizens began in Bangkok. The military utilized heavy-handed tactics to suppress the unrest known as “Black May”. The crisis continued to escalate towards civil war, until King Phumipol Adunyadej intervened. The King compelled Suchinda to resign, and he backed democratic rule with the immense prestige of the monarchy. Following “Black May” the King appointed an interim Prime Minister, removed multiple military Generals, oversaw the passage of constitutional amendments requiring that the prime ministers be elected members of parliament, reduced the role of the military dominated senate, and called for national elections. The resulting elections led to period of democratic leadership lasting for 15 years.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party formed by billionaire telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinnawatra came to power by appealing to the rural northern population with populist programs and a call for Thai citizens to take control of their economy. The rural population of Thailand represents almost 70% of the voting public, which dwarfs the 30% of middle class and elites of Bangkok and the southern provinces. After his party’s election Thaksin remained electorally popular with the rural populace as he implemented health care reforms and populist programs to support the poor northern populations. While his success in the north bolstered his popularity, his administration began to receive criticism for human rights abuses in the southern provinces during his aggressive anti-narcotics campaign. The urban middle class of Bangkok began to demonstrate against the Thaksin government, and his popularity faltered due to a weak economy in 2006. The protestors, mostly middle class educated citizens expressed discontent with Thaksin’s authoritarian style, his perceived attacks on the free press, his mishandling of the violence in the South, and mostly for the apparent corruption of his family’s tax free sale of their telecommunications firm to a Singapore state company in a $1.9 billion deal. In response to the unrest, Thaksin called for a new round of elections that his party won, prompting the King to call on the Constitutional Court to rule on the election’s legitimacy. Thaksin resigned and then quickly assumed power as the interim caretaker until the newly scheduled elections in November 2006. In September, while Thaksin was out of the country, the military staged its 18th coup with the support of the King. The military junta passed constitutional reforms and banned Thaksin and his party from politics for five years, based on violations of election laws in the April 2006 elections.

The ensuing election saw the rise of Thaksin’s successor parties that maintained the populace support of the northern provinces. The succeeding two Prime Ministers were forced to resign, based on ruling from the Thai court system. This series of events galvanized the political divide in Thai society. The mostly Northern rural pro-Thaksin supporters make up the United Front for Democracy (UDD) “red shirts”, insists that the voting population should determine the elected government. While the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) “yellow shirts”, a mix of military, royalist, the bureaucracy, and largely urban and middle class citizens, feel that “ethical imperatives trump the polls”. Both of the groups have seen what they perceive as distortion of the system, and have taken to the street in protest over the past decade.

The military apparatus maintained political power, and in March 2010, anti-government “Red-shirt” protests began in Bangkok. The escalation of security forces and protestors led to violence and urban warfare as the military began to crack down on the protestors. These events led to elections in July of 2011, where the Puea Thai Party, a successor of the TRT, was elected and Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s first female Prime Minister. Two years into her first term, the “yellow shirt” protest began again, leading the Constitutional Courts to remove her from office after finding her guilty of an abuse of power charge stemming from her appointment of a family member to the position of National Security Chief in 2011. Following the court decision, the military under the leadership of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), launched a coup d’état against the caretaker government of Thailand on 22 May 2014. The military established a junta called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation.

Role of Civil Society
Civil society has been defined as a network of voluntary associations and citizen organizations that help sustain the population and community relations in a way that generates trust and cooperation between citizens and encourage a high level of civic engagement. Therefore civil society creates the conditions for social integration, public awareness and action, and democratic stability. In the Thai experience, the term of civil society has been further defined as “organizations other than state, including intellectuals, the mass media, religious groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and middle class activists.” Due do the protracted nature of Thailand’s democratization and semi-authoritarian rule in the early years after transition to the constitutional monarchy, civil society has also developed slowly. The authoritarian style of democracy until the 1970’s prevented the development of many of the aspects of civil society. The significant reduction in the military’s involvement in politics during the period following the student uprising in 1973, has created space for the development of civil society organizations and intuitions.

In the 1980’s the democratic government identified its shortcoming in addressing complex social problems, and began to develop bilateral and multilateral collaboration strategies with NGOs. Thailand’s globalization and open economy facilitated this interaction with non-state actors. The more globalized the economy became, the more the state transferred power to market institutions such as the international banks and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Additionally, the rapid economic expansion led to quick changes in society, including labor migrations and urbanization occurred in the south and near city centers, creating jobs, education, and expanding the middle class. The new patterns of work and consumption across the country led to a wider diffusion of ideas and information. As the role of the state failed to keep pace with the demands of the citizens, civil society grew to fill the gap. The development of political parties and support for accountability in the government with regard to corruption, has led to further civil society development.

The most significant civil society expansion in Thailand came in the 1990’s during the economic boom. In the rural north, civil society flourished as a means to fight for economic reforms. With little or no connection to outside organizations, the agricultural communities have a long history of struggles over property rights, and bureaucratic interference stemming from southern the urban centers and major cities.

The two most influential organizations that have advocated for farmer’s rights are the Small-Scale Farmer’ Assembly of Isan (SSFAI) and Thailand’s Assembly of the Poor (AOP). These organizations have disseminated information and organized social movements to gain further economic freedoms as the country’s economy expanded. In the early 1990’s, SSFAI collaborated with several smaller rural organizations working on “problems of salinated lands, rice farming projects, opposition of hydroelectric dams, opposition to Land Redistribution Project for the Poor in Degraded Forest Areas, cattle-raising projects, and alternative agriculture”. These collaborative efforts led to the success of the SSFAI, and organization’s ability to rapidly mobilize the northern population in political marches from the northern provinces to the Thai capital. These organizations evolved into the UDD “Red Shirts” in the rise of the Thaksin government in the late 1990’s. The ability for these organizations to provide leadership and merge multiple groups, has given the TRT political power as they build their political framework to support the needs of the northern majority in the country.

The expanding economy also gave rise to an expansion of the educated middle class and urban populations. The populist policies of the democratically elected government gave these middle class citizens in the city centers a rallying point. Learning from the success of the northern social movements, the “yellow shirts” organized and began to use the same mass protest tactics in the urban centers to oppose the democratically elected governments. The organization’s ability to mobilize and disrupt the economic stability of the country through further unrest, gave the military the opportunity to seize control in 2006 and in 2014. In Thailand, civil society has fractured and become two separate and opposing movements that have polarized the population.

The formation of diverse organizations theoretically creates a more stable democratic process, but in Thailand’s case, the fracture in civil society is impeding the democratic process. The inability to find common ground on key governmental polices has led to the continued unrest since 2001.

Role of the Military
Throughout its history, the Thai military has held a position of authority and prestige in Thai society. Its ability to maintain power and ebb and flow to the forefront of politics is a credit to its hierarchy, organization, and ability to appeal to the strong desire for stability and security among the Thai populace. The literature identifies three key factors that have build the militaries basis of political power: 1) an ideological base from the Cold War’s anti-communism stance, 2) the ability to use weapons and force to maintain a monopoly of governing power at various time periods, and 3) an infrastructural base that includes radio and television stations and control of a medium-sized commercial bank, the Thai Military Bank (TMB).

Until the late 1970’s, the military maintained a tight grasp on the political power base in the country. This control ebbed with the end of the Vietnam War and withdraw of U.S. military bases from within the country. In the 1980s, the threat of communism led to a restructuring and refocusing of the military which reduced the military’s overall size. Through its own reductions, the military eliminated its ability to establish a functional military dictatorship. In 1991, when the military conducted its coup of the government, its inability to effectively govern led to the political unrest of “Bloody May” 1992, which returned the government to an electoral democracy and sharpened calls for political reform.

The significant reforms following the 1992 coup and the 1997 financial crisis led to Article 40 of the 1997 constitution, placing electronic media in the public domain and removing the military’s monopoly control of 221 radio stations and two television stations. The separation of media from the military removed an economic and political asset of the armed forces and bolstered the expansion of democracy through free press. During the financial crisis, the military holdings in the financial sector were reduced to a marginal level. Over time, these media and financial losses served to restore the militaries legitimacy and professional reputation with the Thai populace.

The military’s ability to use force to suppress protest movements will maintain its position as a relevant player in the political structure. As described by Katz in 2004, the role of the military can help determine the outcome of attempts at revolution. In Thailand’s case, the military sides with the bureaucratic, royalist, and middle class who are opposed to the populist policies of the democratically elected government. Its ability to gather support from the bureaucratic institutions and the monarchy has placed Thailand in a repetitive cycle of social unrest. The rural majority continues to elect the populist supporting parties that best serve their interests, while the middle class and military oppose populist policies which they see as economically unsustainable and the Thaksin-style governments which are seen as corrupt.

Civil Divide
The conflicts between the PAD or “yellow shirts” and the UDD or “red shirts” initiated a cycle of elections that ultimately turned Thailand to an elected democracy in 2011 with the victory of the Puea Thai Party. Prime Minister Yingluck’s populist policies over the next two years soon became economically unsustainable. One key program was a rice subsidy program where the government paid the nation’s rice farms a subsidy of 40% over market value for rice. The program collapsed in February of 2014.

Prior to failure of the subsidy program, the government faced rising unrest in October of 2013 when they tried to pass an amnesty bill for former Thaksin government members. This bill would have cleared former Prime Minister Thaksin of the corruption conviction and allowed him to return to the country. The proposal of the bill ignited the PAD protestors and they mobilized in Bangkok calling for an end to the Thaksin regime and the establishment of a selected “People’s council” who would report to the King in place of the current parliamentary system. In protest to the bill, the opposition political party had 153 members of parliament resign on December 8, 2013, leading the Prime Minter to dissolve the House of Representatives and call for new election on February 2, 2014. The election had significantly lower voter turnout demonstrating a reduced confidence in the electoral system. Figure 1 from the Thai electoral commission illustrates the drop in voter participation from the 2011 to 2014.

In 2014, protests targeting election results and the government persisted, and the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid because voting hours had been extended beyond one day. On May 7th, the same court voted to remove Prime Minister Yingluck based on her 2011 actions. The removal of the Prime Minister, in combination with the persistent protests, led to the military intervention on May 22, 2014 to “restore order”.

In the wake of the coup, the military began implementing policies to decrease the civil divide. The failed subsidy programs alienated the farmers from the elected government. Capitalizing on this fact, the military’s first action after seizing power was to authorize the payment of a portion of the subsidies, ultimately separating the Puea Thai Party from its rural power base.

Civil society and the Thai military have each contributed to the protracted democratization process of the country. The military’s strength and autonomy gives it a unique position in Thai society. In the formative years, it used this position to hamper the development of civil society through control of the media and authoritarian repression. The development of civil society has led to the current civil divide and prevents the stability expected in a democratic nation with a robust civil society. Without intervention, the military will likely maintain the power and legitimacy to intervene in the electoral system in an effort to protect the economy and the future stability of the country. The current prospects of a democratic Thailand are limited, but the military has taken a first step in attempting to separate the Thaksin political parties from their historical power base.