Thailand recently enacted a new constitution. It’s the country’s 20th in less than a century. It strengthens the role of the King and the military in the political sphere, but there are question marks over whether it will lead to greater stability in a country that has been wracked by coups.
Thailand has had more coups than any other country in modern history. In the land of smiles there have been 18 attempted coups since 1932.
Our Thai correspondent Kannikar Petchkaew, asks what has made Thailand so prone to coups.
In the modern history of Thailand, there have been 18 attempted coups – but only 11 have been successful. The latest coup introduced a curfew and martial law, but both have since been lifted.
It’s been two years now under strict junta rule, of people being detained, and banned from political activities, such as public gatherings. Others have been slapped with travel bans. It’s no surprise then, that many have already fled the country.
In 1932, Thailand moved from absolute monarchy to democratic rule. But since then it has endured 11 successful military coups and seven failed attempts. That’s a least one attempted coup per decade, and enough to see Thailand top the global coup d’etat list.
Low levels of education and poor knowledge of democracy is the usual explanation offered.
“We have conducted surveys in every village, asked the villagers if they know anything about democracy," says Prayuth Chan-ocha, Army General turned junta leader. "They said they don’t know. They even barely know the charter drafters,” he continued, referring to the new Constitutional Drafting Committee.
Thai people, Chan-ocha believes, are not really informed about what goes on in their government. “How many farmers know about this?" He asked. "They just struggle to make ends meet everyday. They were made to be poor. Do they know anything?"
But not everyone shares that view. “To suggest the villagers are not informed about the electoral process is insulting to the villagers. Thai villagers have a long history of voting for their own leadership,” says Katherine Bowie, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Bowie has been conducting her research in Thai villages for the past 40 years. “What Thailand should be very proud of is its very long history of village-level democracy," she continued. "In an article that I wrote earlier I traced the last governing electoral politics at the village level back to 1987 and I argued that Thailand is the first country in the world where both man and woman have the right to vote. Women had the right to vote without any controversy,” she stated.
Pasuk Pongpaijit is an economics professor who has spent the past two decades focusing on corruption in Thailand. “We have many coup d’etats and we still have big problem [with] corruption. It proves that it doesn’t help at all,” she commented.
The junta has often spoken of the need to clean up corruption, not only among the nation's politicians, but society at large.
“In fact the government that comes after a coup d’etat often changes or introduces institutions that tend to obstruct the process of allowing corruption to be managed properly,” Pongpaijit continued.
From her findings, corruption rises every time the checks and balance system is set aside –something that can happen often when there is so many coup d’etats. “It’s only after the coup when the government gets overthrown that we get to know what went on behind the scenes," argues Pongpaijit.
She cites the case of military dictators in the 1970s, their corruption was investigated after they were overthrown.
For Pongpaijit and Bowie, blaming the Thai people and corruption is standard practice for any military takeover in Thailand. But could there be another explanation?
Yukti Mukdawijit is a lecturer at a leading Thai university. He says it could be about how resistant the Thai elite are to change. “The people themselves, they are ready. They learn more, they gain power more from the process of democratization, the participation of power," he says. "In this direction I think it becomes a threat to the power of the elite. The establishment cannot stand it."
The fear of parliamentary democracy is related to the fear of an oligarchy losing its power, and the rest of the population gaining that power, according to Pongpaijit.
"It is that fear,” she concludes.