This Is Like So Totally A Coup

by Jonah Shepp

Francis Wade updates us on the situation in Thailand, where the military finally admitted yesterday that it had, in fact, carried out a coup d’etat:

Thais awoke this morning to their first full day of military rule, with top political leaders detained and television stations taken off air following a coup yesterday led by the powerful army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

More politicians are expected to report to the army headquarters in Bangkok today, with the recently deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra having already turned herself in, according to the BBC. They face possible arrest, while scores of politicians and activists have been banned from leaving the country. Commentators questioned the grounds for the coup in light of the fact that the ongoing political turmoil had been limited mainly to Bangkok. The U.S., a strong ally of Thailand, sharply criticized the army’s intervention, with Secretary of State John Kerry asserting that “there is no justification for this military coup.”

Lennox Samuels takes the pulse of Bangkok under curfew:

TV screens were dark or adorned with royal and military symbols, with military and patriotic music playing on a loop and “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council”—the euphemistic name the generals have assigned to the coup administration—prominently displayed in Thai and English. Local stations, from Thairath to Voice TV, Nation TV, TNN24 and THV, are shut down. The government is blocking CNN, BBC, Bloomberg and other foreign networks; Al Jazeera English, curiously, remains on the air.

Even normally eager-to-talk sources have gone to ground, unsure how punitive the military might be in its actions against critics. No sources answered their phones. One sent a terse text message in response to voicemails: “Really sorry can’t talk right now.”

Keating examines why Thailand is “as prone to coups as some of the world’s most unstable failed states”:

Thailand’s coup culture preceded the red-yellow divide, and may have its roots in the unique role the monarchy plays in Thai politics. While Thai politics are bitterly divided, both sides venerate King Bhumibol with an ardor that’s a little difficult for foreigners to grasp, and has on a number of occasions landed them in jail. In comparison with the monarchy, electoral institutions in Thailand tend to be viewed as a bit more transitory.

The king has personally intervened to end Thai political crises in the past, and the fact that his intervention is often sought as a kid of deus ex machina when the country’s political forces are at a loggerheads likely doesn’t really help the legitimacy of civilian political institutions. The Australian scholar Nicholas Farrelly argues that “Thailand has largely accommodated military interventionism, especially by accepting the defence of the monarchy as a justification for toppling elected government.”

William Pesek doubts this will end well:

With no exit strategy visible for the generals, this coup could easily prove to be an unmitigated disaster, even a prelude to full-blown civil war. The odds of a credible election that heals Thailand’s wounds over the next few years are in the single digits right now. Yet there is no other means of establishing a stable government that both the international community and the Red Shirts will accept. The 0.6 percent drop in gross domestic product in the three months through March is only the beginning of economic fallout to come.

Asian markets are largely ignoring this week’s events in Bangkok, figuring we’ve seen this before. They’re being complacent. Thursday’s coup demonstrates a debilitating level of political dysfunction that’s gradually pulling Thailand in the direction of Egypt and Tunisia, not South Korea. Rather than end Thailand’s political nightmare, this coup could drive the country toward whole new levels of chaos.

But Heather Timmons takes the market’s reaction at face value:

Thailand’s twelfth military coup has ushered in a news blackout and a nationwide curfew, but some investors are actually cheering the move, which they say could bring much-needed stability to the divided country, and lift the stock market and currency after months of protests. Seasoned Thai investors have plenty of experience with coups—there has been one every 4.5 years, on average, since 1932. “We view the current military coup as likely overall positive as it creates a more stable environment,” Mark Mobius of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, told Bloomberg. “The prognosis for Thailand is good.”

How the US has responded:

In a stark contrast to its handling of the military takeover in Egypt earlier this year, the U.S. government swiftly ruled the Thai action a coup, beginning a review of U.S. aid to Thailand. At least $10 million in American funding may be withdrawn under federal laws that prohibit American aid to countries where democratic governments have been overthrown. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki wouldn’t elaborate on why the U.S. government did not rule the Egyptian takeover a coup after weeks of review but could make the Thailand decision within hours of the takeover.

Adam Taylor finds that distinction suspicious:

So what exactly is different about Thailand and Egypt? According to Jay Ulfelder, an American political scientist who focuses on political instability, not as much as the State Department hopes. “State is assiduously resisting efforts to draw it into explicitly comparing the two cases, and with good reason,” Ulfelder explains. “Under all the major definitions used by political scientists, both today’s events in Thailand and last summer’s events in Cairo qualify as successful coups. So based on the facts alone, there’s no coherent way to conclude that the two cases wind up in different categories.”

Coup is dirty word, as Thailand’s military are well aware (“This is definitely not a coup,” one army official told the AP on Tuesday). But while academics don’t totally agree on the details, Ulfelder points out that most academic definitions of a coup have three main points: 1) The use or threat of force 2) by people inside the government or security forces 3) with the aim of seizing control over national political authority. Sometimes a fourth point is added to these: 4) by illegal or extra-constitutional means. After the attempts of Thursday, Thailand meets at least three of the categories, and the events in Egypt last year meet all.

And Elias Groll adds that what happened in Bangkok definitely doesn’t qualify as a “democratic coup”:

[Ozan] Varol defines a “democratic coup” according to the following criteria:

(1) the coup is staged against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (2) the military responds to persistent popular opposition against that regime; (3) the authoritarian or totalitarian regime refuses to step down in response to the popular uprising; (4) the coup is staged by a military that is highly respected within the nation, ordinarily because of mandatory conscription; (5) the military stages the coup to overthrow the authoritarian or totalitarian regime; (6) the military facilitates free and fair elections within a short span of time; and (7) the coup ends with the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders

On point one, it fails for Thailand: The ousted government was democratically elected and had taken steps to reconcile with the protest movement by promising new elections. And while the military certainly responded to popular opposition, the governing coalition’s ability to consistently win popular elections would point to their support among the people. On point three, the government had called for new elections in response to the protests. On point four, it depends on whom you ask. On the fifth criteria, the answer is an obvious no. And on points six and seven, it remains to be seen — and the country’s long history of coups certainly doesn’t point toward an answer in the affirmative.