In a stalemate where both parties are weak, the monarchy isn’t climbing into the political area and the judiciary cannot substitute the executive. The military, the sole organized and strong institution, has filled the power void.
With 20th century analytical categories, the crisis in Thailand seems incomprehensible. The military has intervened and declared martial law, undermining the authority of the government, who remains officially in charge. The fragile executive branch derived from the preceding one, is an expression of the country’s poorest classes. In any case, the military intervention has been applauded—or at least welcomed—by the more leftists opposition, elite intellectuals, the most dynamic business circles, and the most international part of Thailand, in substance the socio-political block of Bangkok. Newspapers identify them by the Yellow Shirts worn by its supporters. The conservative adversaries, who have been winning elections for many years, ironically wear red shirts.
Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck’s, party dominated the political scene in 2001 when it was able to collect the protests of the poorest classes: farmers excluded from economic growth, the Isan minority in the west, and the least qualified factory workers. They offered the hope of support, speaking to the heart and wallet. Thaksin’s executive branch was extravagant with aid, free medicines, as well as national and religious rhetoric. Their financial resources, media control, and the simple and incomprehensible language’s lack of scruples all helped.
Thaksin’s rise to power came about with illegal means, or at least the Thai judiciary decided so. After a first sentence, the ex premier was deposed during a military coup in 2006. Since then, he has lived in voluntary exile in Dubai, but his sister continued his legacy, and became prime minister after an electoral victory. In a series of accusations, condemnations, disorder, deaths, and boycotting by the opposition, Yingluck Shinawatra gained control of the provisory government, waiting for the umpteenth election. She couldn’t complete her task because the Supreme Court found her guilty of abusing power and removed her from the empire. The chaos that followed paved the way for the slow-motion coup d’état on May 19th: the military imposed martial law, but left the responsibility of affairs not related to security and public safety to the government. It’s really a formality. By now, the military has control of the situation, like it did on 19 occasions since the advent of democracy in Thailand in 1932.
In the situation’s complexity, two motivations stand out. The military filled a power void. The political parties are weak, and democracy there is fragile. The monarchy, the respected and prestigious institution that could have taken the wheel during the crisis, is above the political parties even when its intervention would have been decisive. Furthermore, the king is ageing and not disposed to descending into the political arena. Public opinion is almost always aligned with the opposition, but it doesn’t represent the electoral majority. Obviously, the judiciary branch cannot substitute the executive, even if its sentences condition events. Only the military is left, the only organized and powerful structure.
Furthermore, a country like Thailand—70 million inhabitants, second largest GDP in Southeast Asia—cannot continue to live in chaos. Growth remains slow in the context of a region known for better results. The economy also grew due to foreign investments that are now cautiously waiting for a solution to the crisis. The internal market, which should compensate for dips in exports, is struggling to take off. Tourism is feeling the negative effects of political instability. The expectations of uninterrupted growth for the ex-Asian Tiger seem to be in danger after years of punctual progress. It’s a risk the country cannot afford, and if the institutions are impotent, the military solution seems inevitable and prophetic.