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Is Thailand Headed for Another Coup? What Should the U.S. Do About It?

On Sunday, in the first national elections in four years, Thailand’s voters decisively backed the populist Puea Thai Party, delivering an apparently crushing blow to Thailand’s establishment—urban elites, the military, and the powerful royal family. The establishment had backed the Democrat Party, which took power in the wake of a palace-backed coup in 2006 that deposed Puea Thai’s predecessor, another party run by business tycoon and then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai politician to truly court the votes of the poor. Now Thaksin, who faces a jail term in Thailand on charges of corruption and has lived in exile since the coup, seems to have had his revenge: His sister, Yingluck, whom he has called “his clone,” runs Puea Thai, and she appears poised to become Thailand’s first female prime minister.

In the wake of the election, all sides in Thailand are vowing calm and reconciliation: Rather than simply running parliament with Puea Thai MPs, Yingluck has formed a coalition government with several smaller parties and has promised to keep the current, arch-conservative army commander in his job. But Yingluck might not have much time to enjoy her victory. Her promises are unlikely to be enough to placate Thailand’s traditional powers, which have ruled the country for decades. Already, Thailand’s judges and election commissioners, closely allied with the establishment, have warned they may annul many of Puea Thai’s victorious MPs. Other urban elite groups have suggested they will launch street protests if Thaksin returns to Thailand—just the kind of unrest that could spark a coup, under the pretext of restoring order. (Just over a year ago, Thaksin’s supporters held mass protests of their own, disrupting Bangkok for weeks and spurring a military offensive in the streets.)

If Thailand’s establishment annuls the election result, all eyes will turn to the United States, long the most powerful foreign player in the Southeast Asian country. Indeed, it’s no surprise that, just before the election on Sunday, Yingluck met with the U.S. ambassador in Bangkok—in part, no doubt, to assess whether Washington will back her party in the case of a coup or other intervention.

If the establishment does interfere, Washington must take action, which it has not done in the past. The stakes are clear: Over the past decade, Thailand’s once-promising democracy—it held multiple free elections in the 1990s and early 2000s, and was considered an example to other young democracies—has slid rapidly downhill, to the point that the military, once thought to be gone from politics for good, now has returned as a major force. To help put Thai democracy back on track, Washington should make clear that the U.S. would no longer tolerate meddling by the Thai establishment. Though Thaksin was hardly Nelson Mandela—he oversaw a crackdown on the media and a ratcheting-up of violence in southern Thailand—the Thai people should have the right to choose the leaders they want.

FOR YEARS, THAILAND, which has employed powerful lobbying firms and has long ties to many senior American policy-makers, has largely avoided official U.S. criticism. But America’s actions (or, really, inactions) have only emboldened anti-democratic forces in Thailand. In the summer of 2006, protests in the streets of Bangkok, led by urban elites frustrated, in part, with Thaksin’s populism, clearly were building up to a military coup—many protestors at that time openly called for one. During that summer, however, many American officials—excluding the U.S. ambassador, who had extensive experience in Thailand and warned that the establishment was not going to tolerate Thaksin’s rule—seemed to simply ignore the possibility that an overthrow was imminent.

When the coup came on September 19, Thai elites openly celebrated: Wealthy young Bangkokians applauded the soldiers and threw flowers on them. Meanwhile, American officials, who previously had admitted that Thaksin was the most impressive and popular politician in Thailand, issued only a mild rebuke. The U.S. then quickly resumed working closely with the Thai government, despite the ambassador’s concerns that country’s democracy was going off the rails. (The ambassador has since left his post.) “A coup is a coup, and we believe a strong U.S. statement announcing the suspension of assistance [to Thailand] and a call for early return to civilian rule … is entirely warranted,” the ambassador wrote at the time.

Congress, too, has said relatively little about Thailand’s democratic decline, even after the 2006 coup. It imposes tough sanctions on Burma and regularly criticizes other rights abusers in Asia, like Laos and Vietnam. (The chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has blasted the Obama administration for building closer ties to Vietnam, which she called a “communist regime [that] cannot and must not be trusted.”) But, when Congress held a hearing last year following the crackdown on the protests in Bangkok, which killed more than 90 people, few members of Congress criticized the Thai government. Instead, they merely endorsed vague plans for post-crackdown “reconciliation” promoted at that time by officials in Bangkok.

Now, Thailand again stands at a precipice. And, if a coup or other intervention pushes it ever closer to the edge, Washington must respond. The U.S. would have several concrete ways to deliver its message that democracy must stand. Most important, the Pentagon could cancel Cobra Gold, the massive joint U.S.-Thai military exercises held annually, which bring Thailand enormous prestige. The Obama administration could also apply sanctions that would cut off military transfers, for example. Congress, meanwhile, could start applying the type of scrutiny to Thailand that it applies to other countries in Asia, subjecting it to a real investigation and public hearing about its actions after the election.

For five years, Thailand’s once-promising democracy has descended into polarizing politics, arrests, and bloodshed. If Yingluck’s election is denied, democracy could collapse entirely, opening the potential for civil war. The U.S. must do its part to ensure that this doesn’t come to pass.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.