Counting the number of Thai coups tells us nothing
Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Many foreign news reports about the present situation in Thailand like to trot out figures for the number of military coup d’états that this country has suffered. People then shake their heads and dismiss Thailand as a “basket case” for democracy. But the overall figures for Thai coup d’états fails to uncover the complexities of Thai politics, especially the class struggle between the ruling class and those who are ruled.
If we discount “self-coups” , which were merely about consolidating the dictatorship at one moment in time, and if we discount “failed coups” which were all about ruling class rivalry, we can see that Thailand has had 10 successful coup d’états.
The 1932 revolution, which overthrew the absolute monarchy, was not a coup d’état. It changed the political system and was therefore a political revolution. It was also supported by the mass of the population who were suffering from the world economic crisis.
The coup d’états of 1933, 1939, 1951, 1957 and 1977 were military coups which overthrew one junta and replaced it by another. They were the result of internal military or ruling class rivalry.
The 1947 coup was carried out by the Pibun Songkram army faction against the civilian faction led by Pridi Panomyong. Both had previously cooperated during the 1932 revolution. This marked the defeat, at the time, of radical civilian politics and consolidated the power of the military after the Second World War.
The 4 remaining coup d’états are the most interesting.
The power of the military was eventually challenged by a mass pro-democracy uprising in 1973. This successful uprising freed-up radical and left-wing currents in society. But the brutal repression of students and the military coup in 1976 put an end to this.
With the defeat of the Communist Party in the late 1980s, Thai democracy was allowed to develop under an elected civilian Prime Minister. But in 1991 the military staged another coup d’état. They were worried about losing their power and influence. The new junta did not last and was overthrown by a mass uprising one year later.
Thailand returned to a democratic system until 2006 when the military staged a coup d’état against Taksin Shinawat’s government. This government had won the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the electorate with real pro-poor policies. The 2006 coup d’état was not enough to destroy Taksin’s political machine and importantly it could not destroy the new political awakening of the population. This is why the military have just staged another coup d’état in 2014.
This brief survey gives a picture of the complex class struggle between the population and the ruling class over the size and nature of the democratic space in society.
The struggle continues.