The Philippines and Thailand have much in common. Both have volatile polities, entrenched militaries, dominant state religions, and persistent Muslim insurgencies in the south of the country. These similarities have been particularly obvious during the past two years, with both countries experiencing widespread street protests against their administrations (which in Thailand led to the resignation of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra earlier this year, although he was soon reinstated).
Why then was it Thailand, the more prosperous of the two, that experienced a military coup last night?
• First off, it could have been here. There have been two halfhearted coup attempts in the Philippines in recent years (the Oakwood mutiny in July 2003 and the incident at the marine headquarters in February 2006). Had these been better planned and carried out in a more committed way, the Philippines rather than Thailand might have experienced the dubious distinction of hosting Southeast Asia’s first coup of the 21st century.
• Thailand has a trump card lacking in the Philippine deck: the king, whose role in last night’s events is as yet unclear (although it is known that he has a strong antipathy to Thaksin).
• Both countries are divided politically, yet in each there is evidence of the dominance of the rising Asian middle class. Despite his hold on the Thai masses and his substantial electoral victories, Thaksin has always been fiercely opposed by a large faction of the middle class and by almost all the intelligentsia. In the Philippines too, the middle class has been calling the shots: toppling Erap in 1998 and persisting in its lukewarm support for Gloria. My hunch is that if the Thai military did not feel that the middle class would at least acquiesce in a coup they wouldn’t have moved (though having said that, I suspect many middle class Thais will have woken up this morning wondering whether this is really what want).
• One reason that Thaksin has proved more divisive than Gloria is that he is a new type of leader, in the Silvio Berlusconi mold—brash, corporate, and business-minded. He has attempted to go beyond the tired old nexus of politicos, business elites, and the military to take Thailand in a new direction. My guess is that the military might have felt a bit cut out of this vision. Gloria on the other hand seems a quintessential politician of the old school, basing her support on alliances with local political leaders, the military, and pursuing a more traditional economic path. Because she seems a continuation of existing norms (however tainted they may be) there is less justification for the military to act. Most military coups are conservative after all—justified by a desire to return the country to the old ways, rather than to take it into dangerous new territory.
• From the word go, avoiding a military rebellion has been one of Gloria’s main political objectives. She only became president in the first place because the military withdrew support from her predecessor, and by rotating the military leadership, appointing former military men to her government, turning a blind eye to corruption in the forces, and allowing the army a free hand in suppressing leftist groups, she has been able to count on their support. After all, short of taking power themselves (which I don’t think many generals would want), who else is likely to give the military such an easy ride?
• A military coup requires the military to think and move as one. And yet it is disunity that is the hallmark of many Philippine political and social movements (see the Oakwood and marine rebellions). Gloria has benefited from this national failing in many ways.
Anyway that’s my two cents. Let’s see what happens in Thailand over the next few days.
Postscript: I just received an interesting communication on the coup from a friend. “I was just talking to friends in Thailand on the phone about this question. The generals are aligned with a guy named Prem Tinsulanonda on the privy council who sees himself as representing the King in civilian politics. Essentially Thaksin has been a long-running threat to that faction of the status quo in Bangkok, and the generals just chose their moment well to act on it. Of course it takes Thailand's democracy back a generation to the generation of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, etc, and the generation of nationalist/opportunist generals. What's most disturbing is that the generals by being aligned with Prem give their putsch the whiff of royal support. This will make it brutally difficult for Thaksin's forces -- no matter how overwhlemingly popular they are in the countryside -- to resist this coup, which is essentially by, about, and for elitist forces in the capital. Say what you will about Thaksin -- he's certainly no friend to democracy -- but I don't see how extraconstitutional actions by people with ulterior motives are very helpful.” Thanks Erin!