In “Democracy, Thai-style,” published 19 February, 2015, in the Boston Review, Ms. Sally Mairs observes that the generals of the Royal Thai Army seized power in a coup d’etat in the kingdom last May and then tried to “bring about unity—or more accurately, politely enforce it at gunpoint."
"Gunpoint?” What guns? Where are these guns? I live in Bangkok, and the only guns that I see are on the hips of the Royal Thai Police. All soldiers on the streets are unarmed, if you can even find one. Ms. Mairs' chilling imagery of a nation beneath a military jackboot does not exist.
Ms. Mairs maligns the Thai coup d’etat like it was an armed robbery. Government, by definition, is synonymous with force. This maxim of political science reflects the government monopoly on legal force that keeps the peace. While the coup d'etat violated the rule of law, one paradox here is that the Thai coup d'etat remains popular, and the Thai people support it by acclamation, if not by referendum. There is a long tradition of coups in Thailand. This is just one more. Though not only Reds oppose it, everyone in the kingdom understands where power rests. Soldiers in Bangkok do not need to display weapons. In this restraint, the Royal Thai Army is ineluctably Thai. If you must have a coup d'etat, you want it to be Thai-style.
Ms. Mairs condemns General Prayuth Chan-ocha for imposing a political time-out last May. Civilian politicians refused to reconcile and extremists on both sides were escalating to symbolic assassinations. General Prayuth was ordered to "save the country," and he acted with the consent of the highest authority in the land. General Prayuth is a patriot, loyal to king and country. Mystifyingly for foreign critics, military rule in Thailand remains popular, and it is widely supported, making it, de facto, legitimate, however illegal. Nobody is nostalgic for the days of protests, random gunfire, and grenade attacks.
While the Thai get back to work, accepting the coup as a regrettable compromise, foreign critics and the American State Department hypocritically seethe over the intervention. In Dubai, an usurped billionaire grasps at strings, and he plots.
In an ideal world, coups d’etat would not be an option. Back in the real world, patriots acted. To the discomfiture of foreign critics, the Thai coup was benign, and subsequent military rule in Thailand restrained. Their stereotypes were challenged as the coup imposed a pause on the Reds, the Whistleblowers, and the mafias that infest the kingdom. The Royal Thai Army acts like an Army of the people, by and for the people, and the soldiers never forget that they are acting for them. Military rule, and martial law, in Thailand, are gently administered. Critics like Ms. Mairs paint a picture that does not exist. Thailand is not writhing beneath military repression, despite the attempts of Western critics to claim otherwise.
This benignity, sometimes characterized as “Thai-ness," perplexes foreign experts who express unwelcome opinions on a country that is not their own. Few such experts actually live in Thailand, and they reject the idea that the Thai people have the right to resolve their own problems in their own ways without foreign meddling. The worst foreign critics obviously do not live here, otherwise they would see what I see when I walk out my door. Predictably, Ms. Mairs portrays the generals as undemocratic and fascist, citing a Thai specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, I am not making this up, who states that what is happening in Thailand is dictatorship, though he is careful only to describe it, and to never actually use that word.
I will do them both a favor. Let us call what is happening in Thailand now a military dictatorship. Let us be clear. After Ms. Mairs quotes General Prayuth saying, “today we are democratic Thai-style,” she asserts that “many people” interpret this statement as a “thinly veiled euphemism for less democratic democracy.”
And so what? The Thai military fist is wrapped in a velvet glove. While Thailand remains under martial law, it is gentle. The streets are not running with blood. Reds are not vanishing from the streets in a campaign of disappearances. There are no tanks on the street corners. There are no military massacres here. Ms. Mairs again quotes her CFR expert, who states that “Thai-style democracy … would not fit the definition of electoral democracy at all.”
Again, I ask: and so what? It may be an inconvenient recollection for these experts, none of whom live here, and fewer who are actually Thai, but Thai elections repeatedly failed to seat governments that could rule with the consent of the governed. We make a fetish of elections in the West, and we wage an imperialism that insists that elections are the lone means of legitimizing governments. Thailand is evidence that this is not true. However Orwellian it seems, Thailand is proof that coups d'etat can be popular and legitimate. The coup d'etat of May 2014 expressed the will of the people.
It is demagoguery to insist that legitimate governments can only hatch as the result of elections. The Red machine in Thailand demonstrated that money, in this case, Thaksin’s money, could usurp elections, and impose an elected dictatorship time and again. Elections are preferable mechanisms for the orderly transition of power, but they are just one means. There are many paths to "democracy," and many definitions. When elections are suborned and their results are undemocratic, only lunatics would insist upon them. The Thai people are not lunatics, they repeatedly rejected a Red tyranny of the majority under the Shinawatra dynasty, and the military regime under General Prayuth enjoys more legitimacy and popular support than all of the divisive kleptocracies perpetrated by Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies.
In Thailand, elections put Thaksin and his proxies in power again and again, and each time, the people, well-behaved mobs of plain folks who were fed up with the failure of electoral democracy, took to the streets and made the country ungovernable. In short, they threw the bums out. The Red majority in Isan had the numbers to elect Thaksin, but so many Thai from all walks of life protested on the streets of Bangkok that the country could no longer function. Millions of Whistleblowers who marched in the heat of the sun soon held the capital in their hands. They marched for themselves, they marched for their country, and they marched for their king. That ultimately proved weightier in the balance than the rural Red electoral majority. The Reds were disenfranchised, but the Thai people enjoy peace now, and they enjoy peace because the Royal Thai Army acted on behalf of all Thai: The Thai are no longer killing other Thai.
Neither the Thai people nor the Royal Thai Army should apologize for their coup d’etat, and they should feel no shame because their hard won peace was imposed by the gentlest coup d’etat in history, thwarting Thaksin, the deposed billionaire dictator. It is ironic that General Prayuth is a military strongman, but Thaksin is a popularly elected and illegally deposed criminal who was far more repressive. Thaksin was corrupt, and that is why the Thai people overthrew him. The Royal Thai Army did the dirty work, but it expressed the will of the people.
The Thai people are gentle, restrained and patient, but their patience erupted when Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, then heading the popularly elected Puea Thai government, tried to sneak an amnesty bill through the Parliament last November. Mischaracterized as "reconciliation," this legislation whitewashed Thaksin of his crimes, would refund a fortune seized by the Royal Thai Government, and pave the way for his return. This was the proverbial step too far. Thaksin’s tiresome string-pulling from Dubai, and his sister’s scheme to pass the amnesty in the middle of the night, put mobs on the streets. Residents of Bangkok, regular people, spoke up in unison.
Their king heard them. Remember King Bhumubol? Rama 9? Elections or not, Thailand remains a kingdom, and no one in this country wields more power or moral authority than His Majesty the King. His Majesty is 87, He will soon pass, in the final transition that awaits us all, but I have no doubt that His Majesty could not leave His Kingdom in such straits. His Majesty heard the cries of His people. Those of us who live here understand exactly what happened. It is no exaggeration to say that the Whistleblower protestors wept in relief, roaring their approval from their sound stages in Bangkok. And just like that, the Red terrorism that martyred 43 Whistleblowers ceased.
In the following days, the Royal Thai Army rolled up Red terrorists and seized caches of munitions. Red terrorism was preempted. General Prayuth made paying rice farmers one of his first orders of business. Red farmers were victimized by yet another Shinawatra scam, the mortgage rice scheme, wherein the Thaksin patronage network cheated even Red farmers. The damages from this epic corruption were vast. Now exposed, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, finds herself under investigation, banned from politics for five years, forbidden to leave the kingdom until she has resolved her legal cases. Red apologists dismiss these prosecutions as political.
Of course they are political. But real crimes occurred, and it appears that Yingluck may have to answer for them, unlike her brother, Thaksin, who remains in wealthy exile in Dubai, still pulling strings, inspiring a litany of critical articles published in the Western press.
How else to explain these critiques of Thailand, and the coup d’etat? Since when is the Boston Review a forum for Thai politics? The coup is Thailand’s business, and no one else’s. We bemoan the military interventionism that overthrew yet another Shinawatra kleptocracy from the discomfort of our own countries, where we have problems of our own, but the coup is a matter for the Royal Thai Government, a matter for His Majesty the King, and a matter for the Thai people, who support the coup d’etat and the military regime. The coup was an ugly and illegal intervention, but it was preferable to the conflict that was building. The Thai people love their king. Thailand remains a kingdom. Foreign critics should not forget it.
General Prayuth has exhibited admirable patience under criticism from Western democracies. Predictably, China and Russia do not presume to judge Thai solutions to Thai problems. Even Japan, a regional power with unparalleled investments in the kingdom, displays a constructive willingness to work with the military government. The American State Department should leave Thailand alone, and support the Thai as they work out their own solutions. We should never support thieves, criminals and terrorists, no matter how many elections they win, over patriots expressing the legitimate will of the people.
Whatever General Prayuth does, however long he decides to remain in power, he will act as a patriot, and he will act as a soldier, to defend the kingdom. I hope for the sake of the Kingdom of Thailand that he takes as much time as he needs. A royal transition looms, and a steady hand will be needed.
Not all Americans condemn General Prayuth. The American State Department does not speak for me. Indeed all Americans that I know in the kingdom consider it an honor to stand with him, and we wish him and the kingdom the very best.
Long Live the King.
Updated 23 February, 2015. My thanks to both critics and supporters, who helped me refine my thinking.