Class War: Thailand’s Military Coup


Thailand’s military coup is a victory for the country’s elites and middle classes. But the country’s rural majority is unlikely to stand aside while the elites dictate a new constitution. (Photo: Pittaya Sroilong / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and

After declaring martial law on Tuesday, May 20, the Thai military announced a full-fledged coup two days later. The putsch followed nearly eight months of massive street protests against the ruling Pheu Thai government identified with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The power grab by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ochacame two weeks after Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was ousted as caretaker prime minister by the country’s Constitutional Court for “abuse of power” on May 7.

The Thai military portrayed its seizure of power as an effort to impose order after two rounds of talks between the country’s rival factions failed to produce a compromise that would provide Thailand with a functioning government.

Deftly Managed Script

The military’s narrative produced few takers. Indeed, many analysts saw the military’s move as a coup de grace to Thailand’s elected government, following what they saw as the judicial coup of May 7.

It is indeed difficult not to see the putsch as the final step in a script deftly managed by the conservative “royalist” establishment to thwart the right to govern of a populist political bloc that has won every election since 2001. Utilizing anti-corruption discourse to inflame the middle class into civil protest, the key forces in the anti-government coalition have, from the start, aimed to create the kind of instability that would provoke the military to step in and provide the muscle for a new political order.

Using what analyst Marc Saxer calls “middle class rage” as the battering ram, these elite elements forced the resignation of the Yingluck government in December; disrupted elections in February, thus providing the justification for the conservative Constitutional Court to nullify them; and instigated that same court’s decision to oust Yingluck as caretaker prime minister May 7 on flimsy charges of “abuse of power.” Civil protest was orchestrated with judicial initiatives to pave the way for a military takeover.

The military says that it will set up a “reform council” and a “national assembly” that will lay the institutional basis of a new government. This plan sounds very much like the plan announced in late November by the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which would place the country for a year under an unelected, unaccountable reform panel.

The military’s move has largely elicited the approval of Suthep’s base of middle-class supporters. Indeed, it has been middle-class support that has provided cover for the calculated moves of the political elites. Many of those that provided the backbone of the street protests now anticipate the drafting of an elitist new order that will institutionalize political inequality in favor of Bangkok and the country’s urban middle class.

The Thai Middle Class: From Paragons to Enemies of Democracy

The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once celebrated the middle class as paragons of democracy. But in recent years, middle-class Thais have transmogrified into supporters of an elitist, frankly antidemocratic agenda. Today’s middle class is no longer the pro-democracy middle class that overthrew the dictatorship of General Suchinda Krapayoon in 1992. What happened?

Worth quoting in full is an insightful analysis of this transformation provided by Marc Saxer:

The Bangkok middle class called for democratization and specifically the liberalization of the state with the political rights to protect themselves from the abuse of power by the elites. However, once democracy was institutionalized, they found themselves to be the structural minority. Mobilized by clever political entrepreneurs, it was now the periphery who handily won every election. Ignorant of the rise of a rural middle class demanding full participation in social and political life, the middle class in the center interpreted demands for equal rights and public goods as ‘the poor getting greedy’… [M]ajority rule was equated with unsustainable welfare expenses, which would eventually lead to bankruptcy.

From the perspective of the middle class, Saxer continues, majority rule

overlooks the political basis of the social contract: a social compromise between all stakeholders. Never has any social contract been signed which obligates the middle class to foot the tax bill, in exchange for quality public services, political stability and social peace. This is why middle classes feel like they are “being robbed” by corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to “buy votes” from the “greedy poor.” Or, in a more subtle language, the “uneducated rural masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an effort to get a hold of power.”

Thus, Saxer concludes, from the viewpoint of the urban middle class,

policies delivering to local constituencies are nothing but “populism,” or another form of “vote buying” by power hungry politicians. The Thai Constitutional Court, in a seminal ruling, thus equated the very principle of elections with corruption. Consequently, time and again, the “yellow” alliance of feudal elites along with the Bangkok middle class called for the disenfranchisement of the “uneducated poor,” or even more bluntly the suspension of electoral democracy.

Impossible Dream

However, the elite-middle class alliance is deceiving itself if it thinks the adoption of a constitution institutionalizing minority rule will be possible. For Thailand is no longer the Thailand of 20 years ago, where political conflicts were still largely conflicts among elites, with the vast lower classes being either onlookers or passive followers of warring elite factions.

What is now the driving force of Thai politics is class conflict with Thai characteristics, to borrow from Mao. The central figure that has transformed the Thai political landscape is the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic, if corrupt, billionaire who managed through a combination of populism, patronage, and the skillful deployment of cash to create a massive electoral majority. While for Thaksin the aim of this coalition might be the cornering or monopolization of elite power, for the social sectors he has mobilized, the goal is the redistribution of wealth and power from the elites to the masses and—equally important—extracting respect for people that had been scorned as “country bumpkins” or “buffaloes.” However much Thaksin’s “Redshirt” movement may be derided as a coalition between corrupt politicians and the “greedy poor,” it has become the vehicle for the acquisition of full citizenship rights by Thailand’s marginalized classes.

The elite-middle class alliance is dreaming if it thinks that the Redshirts will stand aside and allow them to dictate the terms of surrender, much less institutionalize these in a new constitution. But neither do the Redshirts at present possess the necessary coercive power to alter the political balance in the short and medium term. It is now their turn to wage civil resistance.

Since the coup, about 150 people have been reported detained—including Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent reporter for Thailand’s Nation newspaper known for his criticism of the anti-government protest movement that precipitated the military’s intervention.

What now seems likely is that, with violent and non-violent civil protest by the Redshirts, Thailand will experience a prolonged and bitter descent into virtual civil war, with the Pheu Thai regional strongholds—the North, Northeast, and parts of the central region of the country—becoming increasingly ungovernable from imperial Bangkok. It is a tragic denouement to which an anti-democratic opposition disdaining all political compromise has plunged this once promising Southeast Asian nation.

Walden Bello, a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, was the principal author of A Siamese Tragedy: Development and Disintegration in Modern Thailand (London: Zed Press, 1998).

  • Michael_Greenwald

    This is a completely manipulative and false portrayal of the situation in Thailand obviously written by a Taksin supporter. Anyone who calls the opposition “the Elites” is either a supporter or has been bribed as have many reporters. “Elites” is a code term greatly nourished by Mr. Taksin’s bribes. It skims over the fact that without doubt the richest and most “elite” of the “elites” is Mr. Taksin himself, a multibillionaire who could have been considered the father of modern Thailand if he was not consumed by greed. He is the kind of man for whom the term “enough” does not exist.

    Mr. Taksin is a populist who has first enriched himself by manipulating the tax system to benefit his himself at the expense of the country, given the poor a “loan” (from the tax base) which no-one ever dreamed of repaying. It was just a populist bribe to buy votes. Takisn was convicted of illegally buying a multimillion dollar piece of state property in violation of law, a brazen move beyond belief. He runs the country thru family surrogates. The let PM was his sister and the current one is a relative.

    He tried to corner the rice market and thereby give the farmers more profit (and presumably steal the rest) but instead caused a catastrophic crash in rice prices, leaving the farmers unpaid and the treasury bate to the walls, $16 billion of unsold rice, more than any other country of Asia, much of it stolen or destroyed. Only the Army coup has been able to penetrate the wall of resistance to find the true magnitude of this loss.

    The farmers remained unpaid and were on the brink of revolution but now the army has intervened and made them a partial payment, enough to keep the wolf from the door.

    Mr. Bellow wants you to think this is a case of a humanitarian leader opposed by the rich but the fact is that the millions who oppose him are the middle class who are sick and tired of the corruption, this in a country used to corruption. Clearly the rich want him out, not because he threatens their profits (he doesn’t) but simply because he is so corrupt. In fit, financially the rich did well under Taksin. It was the middle class, the ons who pay the taxes who got hurt. But Mr. Bello wants you to see this as a class struggle, which it isn’t.

    Foreigners often judge Thailand in black and white and think that if a populist is elected then he is OK. Thanks for imposing your standards on a situation you do not understand. For some, driving the county into collapse is OK as long as it is done by the rules. You may recall that Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor before then using his power to become a dictator. At least the Thais are sick of their mess and angry, No-one here want a military government and it i hardly an ideal alternative but at least the farmers have ben paid and the full magnitude of the scandal revealed.

    • certop

      michael, i don’t think anything in the article supports the charges you’ve made against it–walden plainly describes thaksin as a “charismatic, if corrupt, billionaire” who secured his following in part through “populism, patronage, and the skillful deployment of cash.” it’s not about thaksin. what you’re not addressing is the more important argument that, whatever thaksin’s flaws, his party was a vehicle for the majority of marginalized thais to assert themselves, defend their interests, and participate in a political system otherwise dominated by people with more resources than themselves.

      make the case against thaksin and his policies all you want, but one wonders, if you can do it here in the comments, why can’t the opposition win an election making the same argument? why do they need a military coup to get their way?

      • Michael_Greenwald

        Historically the poor Thai people have always been glad to take bribes for their votes and i have heard many say whatever they got was more than they got any other way. In my town politicians would get votes in exchange for two cases of coke and a blanket. I have seen this with my own eyes. Finally someone promised them a new street–and won–and they got the street–a revolution!

        So one can imagine their love for Mr. Taksin, who first gave them public medicine which was wonderful and would have been even more so if he had funded it (but that would have meant raising taxes). He gave them a nice loan which they do not have to repay and a handsome price for their rice, way beyond its actual sale price. So, they love him and vote for him.

        Of course the little detail is that the coke and blankets came from some politicians pocket but the loan and great price for rice came from public funds. Taksin paid the farmers and paid and paid for their votes out of the treasury until there was not one baht left, leaving hundreds of thousands of farmers unpaid, important projects abandoned, particularly flood control (we had terrible floods here last year), the future in doubt.

        Like Evita Perona, Taksin also drove around and handed out 500 baht notes to the motorbike taxi drivers and they loved him but when I asked if he also raised their rates they said “No.” So after their 500 baht ($18) they were just as poor. So he has purchased their votes using public funds, put his relatives into every possible slot. His sister, Yingluck was dismissed from office because she illegally dismissed the national security director–and replaced him with a cousin. Ditto the head of the police and army. Nepotism and corruption make a heady brew.

        Most of all, most of all, he has bribed the poor but not actually improved their lot. After the loan and the rice scam they are just as poor as before!

        On the other side is a growing class of educated people, mostly in the cities and they read. Bookstores everywhere. The read and they know what Taksin has done and they are just fed up. But there are a lot more poor, uneducated farmers than educated people.

        So the middle class and even the wealthy are out in the streets enraged and frankly they really do not care what your President Obama or the New York Times think about their protest. It is hard to really take a country like the US, that wages endless wars that it always loses and a congress that calls their bribes “contributions” seriously. So, it’s nice to see some foreigners on their high moral perch but no-one here really cares what they have to say.

        Me, I just don’t like writers trying to make this into a class war, a wart of the elites and the royalty trying to hang on to their wealth, like this author implies. It is not about class. It is about corruption.

        • certop

          you say it’s not about class. but you also describe it as a contest between “the middle class and even the wealthy” on one hand and “poor, uneducated farmers” who take “coke and blankets” for votes on the other. those sound like class lines to me.

          if the wealthy and the middle class are fed up with corruption and feel that the poor majority is also being ill served by the government, then they are welcome to explain how a different arrangement would serve everyone better.

          instead they blocked elections and prompted a military coup. did their powers of persuasion fail them? or did they just decide that their wealth and education entitled them to invoke the violence of the state against the party favored by their poorer fellow citizens?

          • B Thana

            You might not know “How to be Thai” that well, and I mean it in a good way. I can say you still misunderstood many things toward Thai culture in Politics. Democratic governance in Thai is quite Unique because it’s a mix of a new and old power that balance each party. I might not describe it very well but you can start learning it in a different angle by putting away your background theory of democracy.Start looking at a more mundane and humane perspective, you will find this story even more interesting.

  • Michael_Greenwald

    Drea Certop,

    Thanks for your comments. if you are American I would like to thank you for having such a successful model of what democracy should look like. You have a military larger than the next 12 countries combined and have waged war all thru my lifetime–but you lose all the wars. You leave countries destroyed and they become Islamic states or fall into civil war.

    You elected a president who started a war for no reason-and then you reelected him. He left you with a depression, an $800 million strings-free gift to the banks that caused the collapse.

    Your congress is the largest organisation designed to transfer wealth from the middle and working class to the already rich. Your congressmen are criminals who have legalised their crimes by simply changing the word “bribe” to “contribution.” Your reps are nothing more than dogs who eat only from their rich master’s hand.

    Your Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision made the worst decision since Dredd Scott, giving corporations all the rights of citizens: to bribe; manipulate and manoeuvre their dogs in congress. Your Chief Justice facilitated the secrete spy state. You have a secrete NSA kangaroo court with secrete judges unelected and not vetted by congress who make laws akin to the supreme court–but we don’t know what they are because they are secrete.

    Your congress has happily bought the Big Lie about “free” trade and hundreds of thousands of industries have closed shop and moved offshore. Your stock market is up but most of the companies producing the wealth are offshore. If you get “Plant Closing News” you will see that more than 30,000 manufacturing business have closed in the last year. The manufacturing sector is hollowing out. You can sell the disused machines. What do you do with the disused workers?

    This is all thanks to the generosity of your democratically elected reps and your wonderful democratic system. You have become a nation of burger flippers and pot-hole fillers. Where is the anger? Where is the million man march? Your citizens cower in their homes playing computer games, desperately trying to hang on to the little that is left. You are nation that has sold its birthright for a bowl of Nintendo.

    But this is the democracy that you hold up for Thailand, a shining model of war, financial loss, destruction of the middle class, a nation of crumbling bridges and roads, storm-trooper police and everything is bugged, tapped and surveiled.

    So, thanks for being so high minded. I think maybe the Thais are better off with their Dirty Democracy.

    ps when your president opens his big, fat mouth to criticise other country he makes enemies. The US trade fare scheduled to open in Bangkok next week–is cancelled.

    • certop

      i’m glad to hear you’re interested in these issues, michael– they’re all concerns that i share as an editor here at FPIF, which is why we publish articles about them as often as we can. thanks for enlightening me nonetheless.

      but i’m a bit at a loss for why you would interpret our critical analysis of the coup in thailand, by an author who is not american, as an endorsement of the american system.

      • Michael_Greenwald

        A conspiracy to distort the truth requires the conspirators to act together, so we cannot call using the term “Elite” to define the opposition a conspiracy. But there is a strong belief, shared by me, that using this term used to describe the anti-corruption movement in Thailand was orchestrated by the Big Guy Himself, Mr. Taksin. He and anyone who uses this term wants the public to see this as a class struggle between a “man of the people” the vastly rich Mr. Takisn, and all those rich, greed-head Thais who have money. That is just not the case.

        We see the NYT, Reuters and FPIF using this term while studiously ignoring the simple fact that in the very democracies you hold up as examples of what Thailand should have, it is clearly the Very Rich (otherwise known to you as the “Elites”) who control the country, control who gets nominated and everything else. Is your model of “democracy” something Thailand should emulate?

        Your “elites” rule you hand and foot but for some incredible reason you think of yourselves as a democracy, simply because people get to vote. Yes, it is a democracy, but more so for the rich. Why don’t you call the rich US congressmen the “Elites?” Why don’t you call the Republicans who provide vast sums to the candidates the “elites?”

        Any fool who cares to walk thru these demonstrations in Bangkok and other cities can talk to the demonstrators, MILLIONS of people, and quickly see that they are just educated Thai people who are sick and tired of seeing their tax money disappear. Are there “elites?” Yes! Most of them, too, are educated and just as sick of the corruption as the middle class.

        Since the coup, day after day, the Army is revealing the full extent that the Thai treasury has been looted. It is staggering. We are broke! Broke. Billions gone! Not one baht left. Not enough in-coming tax money to pay the bills. The army had to borrow to make a part-payment to the farmers. God knows how they will pay the soldiers.

        Last week the US press revealed that the GM bailout cost the US taxpayer $11 billion in losses–and–not a murmur of protest.

        So I am proud to see the Thai people standing up for their country and dismayed to see Americans doing nothing while the very essence of what they were is nibbled away to suit the “Elites.”

  • Michael_Greenwald

    FYI, the Thai Army just announced their audit of the rice supply. They have discovered that some of the rice reported missing was not stolen–it never existed at all. The government colluded with some of the farmers to overstate the amount of rice they sold, so that they would get even more money. The shortfall has been announced to be about 3 million metric tons valued at approximately $1.2 billion dollars. This loss is just part of the $18-24 billion total loss.

    In essence, Mr. Taksin speculated on rice prices. He cornered the Thai rice supply betting that he could control prices but instead they went south. A number of wealthy people have tried to manipulate futures markets and most have failed. The difference is that they were speculating with their own money.

    So, for those who hold democracy as the only and ultimate touchstone of “good,” one must wonder how votes gained by misappropriation of public funds and fraud to gain votes fit in. This is another reminder that the world really does not need the morally superior bs ladled out by the west and particularly by president Obama to straighten out their affairs.

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