On February 8, Thailand’s military leaders announced yet another delay to elections they have been promising since they seized power in a coup in May 2014. Allegedly, a vote will now take place some time in 2018. But given that the contest, originally scheduled for late 2015, has now been delayed at least four times, a key fear has begun to burrow into observers’ minds: Will democracy ever return to Thailand, a country that, in many ways, provides a cautionary tale to other nations at risk of democratic backsliding?
For several years now, Thailand’s military has maintained a commitment—rhetorically, at least—to returning the country to civilian rule by way of a “roadmap to democracy.” This includes efforts at reform and reconciliation, in addition to drafting a new constitution. The junta presided over a constitutional referendum last August, which saw the passage of a charter carefully crafted by the military and its allies to safeguard their privileges and circumscribe the powers granted to future elected governments. Despite the fact that the military government outlawed all campaigning against the charter—an almost laughable indication of its own fragility—the referendum marked a procedural victory in the implementation of its roadmap.
For a few months, anyway.
The roadmap hit a snag in early January when King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in early December following the death of his much-beloved father, requested changes to the charter. The constitution requires the King’s signature in order to be officially promulgated, and by holding out on what was expected to be a merely ceremonial measure, the new King has managed to extract concessions to expand his powers in the new system and make an already troublingly authoritarian charter even less democratic. At least nominally, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. But that label belies the complex role that the monarch plays in Thai politics—a role Vajiralonkorn appears to want to strengthen.
And while this move further threatens the future of democratic accountability in Thailand, military leaders may not care. Their approach to reform reflects deep distrust in the idea of democracy. Junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who wields unilateral decision-making power, recently asserted that if people become “carried away with thoughts about rights, liberties, and democracy in every issue, it will lead to anarchy.”
It probably isn’t surprising that a military dictator is dismissive of democracy. But Gen. Prayuth isn’t alone—a significant portion of the population that feels similarly. Wracked by years of deep polarization and partisan infighting, democracy has become a complicated and fraught idea for many Thais, particularly among the urban elite. The military has relied on severe repression since taking power, including heightened use of the draconian lese-majeste law, which outlaws criticism of the monarchy. Still, the failure of pro-democracy activists to mount a successful challenge to a regime that has struggled to spur economic growth, is as much the result of democratic fatigue as it is of outright repression.
Thailand experienced perhaps one of the earliest iterations of the current populist wave sweeping the globe. A decade and a half before Donald Trump’s rise, billionaire business mogul Thaksin Shinawatra pioneered populism and cutting-edge messaging targeted at the rural poor to get elected Prime Minister in 2001. He presided over an administration that treated the Thai state like one of his businesses, while expanding executive power and dismissing any criticism. He remained popular among key portions of the electorate, but his politics also proved deeply polarizing and led to a middle-class uprising calling for his ouster.
When the military finally obliged and overthrew Thaksin in 2006, it triggered a decade of bitter political warfare between Thaksin supporters, known as redshirts, and his opponents, known as yellow shirts. The battles led directly to the more recent 2014 coup, which overthrew Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck (who had been elected Prime Minister in 2011), orchestrated by a military faction bent on getting right what the last coup plotters hadn’t.
But with reconciliation nowhere in sight and the military apparently more interested in maintaining control than solving underlying issues, it’s hard to imagine that the junta will succeed in this goal, or that its roadmap will lead anywhere positive. Gen. Prayuth and his subordinates appear completely clueless about how the modern world works. When faced with opposition or setbacks, their response is to repress dissent and demand that everyone just be happy, hoping that they can simply turn back the clock to a time before the internet and social media, when leaders could control what the public heard—and what it didn’t.
Thailand’s experience contains lessons for democratic countries grappling with similar strains of populism and polarization today. While its penchant for military coups, which have happened on an average of every 7 years since 1932, is unique, societal fatigue with constant infighting between politicians perceived as fundamentally corrupt and self-interested isn’t. This phenomenon has produced a population paralyzed by old grudges and grievances, suspicious of the promise of real reform, and numb to the suggestion that order trumps fundamental rights.
The Thai military has shown that it’s all too willing to use this reality for its own ends, shaping a future system that essentially denies popular sovereignty and enshrines a permanent role for the military in political life. Now, regardless of when elections finally do take place, barring a dramatic and unexpected shift, it’s unclear how genuine Thai democracy will mount a comeback—or if it even can.