Chanida Chanyapate and Alec Bamford*


If, as an educated outsider, you have little familiarity with Thai politics (and in this you would seem to be in company with Kofi Annan and other world leaders), the military coup in Thailand on 19 September will appear as a drastically undemocratic regression to a semi-feudal state, with power allocated by brute force.

Inside Thailand, it looks rather different.

The precise motives for the coup may never be completely known, but the lack of legitimacy of the Thaksin administration is undoubtedly one of them, and this seems to have been enough to persuade the vast majority of Thais (83% in a poll two days after the coup) (1) that the coup, on balance, has been a Good Thing.

Bemused foreigner observers should ask themselves a question like this:

Which of the following is less democratic, or more dangerous in the long term, or less legitimate?:

(a) a well-engineered bloodless coup that quickly neutralized any likely violent opposition, that instantly resolved a political impasse that had lasted half a year and was likely to go on for months, and that promised a fresh (and hopefully clean) civilian administration in a matter of days; or

(b) the use of money, cronyism, and nepotism to neutralize the checks and balances built into the constitution and all opposition, whether violent or non- violent; gross human rights violations (including extrajudicial killings and disappearances); the accumulation of huge levels of personal wealth; and the manipulation of a supposedly democratic electoral system to perpetuate one’s own grip on power.

For most Thais, this is the choice they were faced with, and it’s a no-brainer.

Coups, successful, failed, aborted or just threatened, have been a repeated feature of Thai politics for nigh on a century. A pattern of coup behaviour has emerged, so that each coup follows precedents set out in previous ones. What to the outsider looks like a political earthquake does in fact have some predictable normality about it. (2)


But coups are bad news for constitutions. All constitutions have some provision outlawing extra-legal usurpation of power. That is exactly what a coup is. So page 1 of the military’s Coup-Making for Dummies handbook will have the instruction ‘rip up the existing constitution’. If they don’t do this, then the coup-makers are automatically guilty of treason.

This means that the coup-makers of 2006 did not necessarily have any serious objections to the constitution they destroyed. (3) The 1997 constitution is a particularly cherished document. It was based on a fundamentally liberal philosophy that respected human rights, mandated gender equity and promoted social welfare and popular participation in decision-making. It was the product of months of careful analysis of where earlier constitutions went wrong, broad input into the drafting process, and some tricky negotiations to maintain its basic premises in the face of reactionary opposition. (4)

It seems a tragedy that this ‘people’s constitution’ should have gone down the toilet.

But the loss may not be as serious as it first seems. In many ways, the spirit of the constitution had already been negated by the only administration elected under its provisions – the Thaksin government. What went down the toilet was beginning to look like just another piece of paper.


You have to understand that one common complaint about Thailand’s political development is quite true: democracy, at least as it understood by outsiders, doesn’t have very deep roots in Thai social structures.

The generals who staged this coup quickly formed themselves into a council which, without any apparent embarrassment, called itself the ‘Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy’. Two days into the coup, they had second thoughts about this title and decided it might mislead people about the role of the Palace. So they told the media to start calling them just the ‘Council for Democratic Reform’. Neither they nor the Thai public seemed to find anything untoward in describing themselves as ‘Democratic’ when they had just overthrown a democratically elected government.

Politics is, for many Thais, the only arena of life where formal democratic principles and practices are supposed to hold sway. They won’t find much that is democratic in their jobs, their education, their religion, or their dealings with the government. Even in politics, the democratic veneer is paper thin. Before his downfall, Thaksin was given to boasting of the mandate that 16 million votes gave him. But when it came to the internal workings of his own Thai Rak Thai (5) party, he wasted no time on fripperies like elections and votes or anything else that might be recognized as democracy in action. Decisions were made by the CEO-cum-PM, and loyal cabinet members and MPs (who were also well-paid by their party) were expected to follow them, not contribute to them. The only Thai Rak Thai party member who seems to have had any significant voice was Khunying Pojaman (Mrs Thaksin) and that perhaps because most of the party’s money came from her purse.

A full explanation of how Thais reach an answer to the basic question of democracy – who decides things – is intricate, and complicated by the fact that important changes seem to be underway. But one of the more important pillars of Thai power relations (as in other Southeast Asian cultures) has been, and still is, the patron-client system. (6)

And the problems with a system of governance based on an intricate and well-established patron-client nexus such as Thailand’s, are that:

  • it is undemocratic,
  • it allows no accountability other than personal appeals for favouritism,
  • participation in decision-making is increasingly limited the farther you move down the pyramid, – it reinforces patriarchy,
  • it is not informed by any concept of rights, equity or justice,
  • relationships are opaque, even to the people in them,
  • it often works better when information is kept confidential rather than made transparent,
  • it fosters high levels of nepotism,
  • and it has proved sufficiently flexible to operate in politics, the judicial system, the government bureaucracy, business, the education system, the military, the various security forces and just about any other important area of Thai life.

And the patron-client relationship that trumps all others is that between the King and his subjects, (7) something that all coup-plotters have to bear in mind.Royal approval, however muted and grudging, will get you home safe.

But the biggest problem with the patron-client system is that it works, and it works especially well when unbridled capitalism usurps an agrarian economy, as it has in Thailand.


Thai power relationships, as you may guess from the prevalence of patron- client networks, have traditionally been based on personal relationships. If you go back a hundred years, personal relations would get almost all Thais through almost all their daily business. Populations were scattered, mobility was limited, and most of the people Thai villagers would meet in their lifetime would be people they already knew. Negotiating business with a stranger was a relatively rare occurrence and didn’t need the level of sophistication that had developed to govern relationships among people you do know. (8)

In a culture where even talking to strangers is difficult, the idea of representative democracy, where one MP represents the interests of tens of thousands of citizens, doesn’t fit easily.

However, there are reasons for thinking that relationships among Thais were mediated by some sense of justice, founded on a sense of moral obligation, even if this did not translate into equity. (9) But of course there are very few signs of anything as formal as, say, the intricate articles governing the electoral process of the constitution we’ve just lost.

These unwritten, person-based, nod-and-a-wink understandings would apply to dealings both between person and person and between community and community, as the mueang fai systems of inter-communal water management systems demonstrate. (10)

Of course, a hundred years ago, there were people in Thailand who didn’t live in villages. They constituted a much smaller portion of the population than today, and while they held the levers of power, it was not easy for them to make their writ run throughout the kingdom. But Pasuk and Baker point out that Bangkok at that time wasn’t at all like it is today. (11) It had the court and the nobility, but these were the Thais that were very aware of the outside world and in many ways emulated it. And the rest of the urban population (as in upcountry towns) was more Chinese than Thai. The ordinary Thai would have little or no reason for living in the Bangkok of a century ago. So Bangkok itself wasn’t really Thai at all.

But great changes are underway in Thai society. One is urbanization. Thais are now likely to live next door to, work alongside, and even marry, someone from a completely different community background. This requires an effective way of dealing with strangers. One result of this is seen in the burgeoning urban groups, ranging from slum organizations to middle-class housing estate residents fighting slipshod developers or the garbage dump next door, to rather more elite groups staking out environmental or conservation claims.

The second big change is government interference in self-government. For the last 40-50 years, the government bureaucracy has been telling rural Thais what to do and how to do it. Thousands of agricultural extension officers, for example, prowl the countryside attempting to persuade farmers to implement the latest bright idea from Bangkok.

This attempt to control villager behaviour has been implemented by the best methods that foreign development experts can suggest: by committees, with chairs and treasurers and minute-taking and the whole paraphernalia of what, in form, looks like democracy. (12)

But not in fact. The standard operating procedure for a Thai NGO starting development work in a rural village begins with mapping the community; this includes a mapping of power relationships to identify the key people to engage. Trainee NGO personnel are routinely told to ignore titles like ‘village head’ and ‘chair’ of this or that committee, since these ‘formal’ leaders were likely to be quite different from the ‘natural’ leadership.

When state power has been particularly intrusive, threatening the very existence of the community for example, a ‘natural’ leadership will sometimes come out into the open and form a structure parallel to, and in opposition to, whatever was created, controlled and co-opted by central authority. This has happened in such cases as the Khlong Dan waste water treatment plant and the proposed coal-fired power stations in Bo Nok and Ban Hin Krut. It is worth noticing that in both these cases, women community leaders have been prominent and the gender imbalance that in Thailand is typical of formal democratic structures disappears.

Rural Thais have had to develop coping mechanisms to avoid the worst intrusions of the government bureaucracy and, at the same time, try to pick up any goodies that were on offer. One way of doing this was to plug into a political patron-client network whose higher ranking members could lean on the bureaucracy at the local level. The quid pro quo was almost inevitably the peasantry’s grateful votes at election time.

On the periphery of government development efforts have been the Royal Projects. While they often incorporated the resources of the government system, these projects were, in the eyes of villagers, a far more attractive form of assistance. Fundamentally paternalistic, they were in general properly planned and resourced and only made government efforts look bad in comparison.


When Lord Salisbury rose to his feet in the 19th century British parliament, a body then reserved exclusively for propertied males, to rail against the horrors of representative democracy (one man, one vote), he used as his counterargument what he termed ‘natural democracy’. This was the democracy of the joint-stock company. One share, one vote. The democracy of capitalism. (13)

This was the kind of democracy that Thaksin was developing in Thailand and was entrenching ever deeper by the minute.

Thaksin set about hobbling the bureaucracy. This was achieved by a mixture of ‘bureaucratic reform’, which in many cases quickly descended into permanent chaos that kept officials too confused to bother anyone else, and the establishment of a separate stall of goodies that villagers could access without having to wheedle their way round the government officials. Thaksin raided every piggy-bank of government funds that he could sniff out and poured the proceeds into the rural and lower-class urban economies.

Thaksin’s anti-poverty measures included: Village Funds, each of one million baht, providing 236 billion baht in credit; the People’s Bank, providing 25.6 billion baht in credit; and a 15.7 billion baht credit line for small- and medium-size enterprises. Thaksin also ‘created’ 52 billion baht worth of property by granting titles to previously untitled assets. (14) [Approx. 47 baht = one euro/37 baht = one US dollar] These initiatives opened opportunities for more entrepreneurial villagers to escape the enforced patronage of government officials. (15) It is not clear if people in rural areas think this is a form of democracy, but they voted for it en masse. Thaksin the developer, the money-lender, the neo-feudal Lord Bountiful, was using the mechanism of debt-fuelled capitalism to set himself up as a serious patron, one whose success at the polls was moving beyond challenge.

So if Thaksin was putting in place an alternative to bureaucracy-controlled largesse that was successful enough to win him three elections, why wasn’t the coup met with massive rejection from the countryside?


There were always a few groups, apart from his natural political rivals, who were never going to trust Thaksin. He had the businessman’s desire for quick results that led him to ride roughshod over people who got in the way. The 2,500 corpses left behind by his war on drugs (in 2003) were, as far as the National Human Rights Commission has been able to assess, largely innocent, and all had relatives and friends left behind to balance the cost (death) and the benefits (drug prices quickly returned to near pre-‘war’ levels). Contract chicken farmers caught between avian flu, government lies and spotty compensation for culled flocks were not going to vote Thai Rak Thai in a hurry.

But in the end, Thaksin had fought the bureaucracy and the urban elite who benefited from the status quo. He wasn’t overthrown by these, but by two institutions he couldn’t control.

One was the military. Now Thaksin did try to manoeuvre his people into the right positions. (16) But he hadn’t got that far and his attempts this year were blatant enough to push some officers into the coup camp. And because their sons get drafted, most families in Thailand think that the military, brutal as it often is (17), is somehow one of ‘us’. This is not the case with the police, the other main perpetrator of human rights violations in Thailand (18). While most families would love to get one of their sons into a police uniform, they can’t; and the police are seen as ‘them’, given to pulling over pick-ups and motorbikes (rather than Mercedes and BMWs), fabricating evidence, staging futile re-enactments, and, as far as we can tell, murdering 2,500 supposed drug-dealers and sundry other undesirables. Thaksin’s early career was in the police and he married a policeman’s daughter.

The military had been reminded repeatedly in the run-up to the coup that their loyalty was to the country and hence the Head of State, not to the government of the Prime Minister. Most of the not-so-veiled warnings came from former Prime Minister and retired army chief General Prem Tinasulanonda, now a Privy Councillor. In one telling speech that perhaps could only have come from a former cavalry officer, he described the military as a racehorse. The government of the day, he argued, was only the jockey. The owner was the King.

The other institution was the monarchy itself. Unsubstantiated rumours of a ‘Finland plot’ by Thaksin advisors to turn Thailand into a republic were not helpful to Thaksin’s chances. And in the end, Thaksin even lost on the numbers game. His much vaunted 16 million votes amounted to about 60% of the votes cast in April’s largely uncontested election. The opinion poll put pro-coup sentiment at over 80%. And somewhere between 60% and 80% is the number of ordinary Thais who, on Mondays, go about their business in Bangkok wearing yellow shirts. This is a remarkable voluntary act of homage to His Majesty. (19)


Seen in isolation, the coup has been a success both in its own terms, and in opening eyes to the fact that democracy is something more than fair and free elections and, even then, not the whole story. The appointment of an advocate of the sufficiency economy as Prime Minister may also herald a shift away from the capitalism-inspired politics of Thaksin that proved so divisive. But from a longer perspective, which is not the way Thais normally prefer to look at things, the problems are glaring.

First, the military’s sense of impunity and self-importance will not have been dented one jot by this. Although it has long been fissured by factions and inter-service rivalry, the military quickly closes ranks at any hint of criticism of their loyalty to the Crown and their prickly sense of honour. Their current popularity might quickly dissipate if there are any further signs of high- handedness such as the closing of the website of Midnight Universitry, a popluar education programme run by academic activists in Thailand’s second city (and Thaksin’s hometown) Chiang Mai. (20)

Second, there is no such animal as a neutral politician. The military have, as promised, appointed a largely civilian cabinet. But this is collectively a far more conservative and narrow-minded group than the advisory committees that were announced soon after the coup. (21) This may well be because coup was pulled off by a group of so-called ‘non-political’ soldiers who are not altogether aware of the issues. But it does not bode well for the constitution-drafting process. Any erosion of the hard-won rights and freedoms of the 1997 constitution will provoke dissent.

And lastly, Thailand has again entrusted its well-being to His Majesty the King. Thai political stability has become dependent on a single actor. It has worked before and it worked this time. But it cannot work forever.

* Chanida Chanyapate is deputy-director of Focus on the Global South. Alec Bamford is a teacher and writer who has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years working in linguistics, community development and human rights.


1. By Suan Dusit University, who regularly conduct such polls. Very similar figures were given for respondents from both Bangkok and upcountry, in contrast to voting patterns in previous elections where the provinces (except the south) were heavily pro-Thaksin.

2. At a mundane level, the first news that most Thais get of a coup is when normal TV programming gets interrupted in favour of clips of the Royal Family doing meritorious deeds while the soundtrack plays patriotic music. The satellite feed becomes erratic, and a deadpan male voice reads out a series of proclamations. Another recurring feature of coups is that you can normally find pre-coup statements by the coup-makers that there will be no coup.

3. The coup-makers quickly had drafted an interim constitution with a mechanism for drafting a new permanent constitution. This explicitly uses the 1997 constitution as a bench-mark. Any differences between this and the constitution about to be drafted have to expounded and explained by the constitution drafters (still to be selected).

4. It was also the most popular in terms of the number of people who carried copies around with them.

5. ‘Thai Rak Thai’ means ‘Thais Love Thais’. You need to know this to understand the joke in the next section heading.

6. For the benefit of non-Thai readers, the system, briefly, works like this. X has higher status (because of age, sex, social class, education, wealth, fame, or formal authority) than Y. Y chooses to provide services for the personal benefit of X. These services range from pouring the patron’s drinks, to voting the way the patron wants, even to aiding abetting in semi- criminal activity. In return, X uses his (and it is normally his and not her) status to provide protection for Y, to distribute largesse when occasion demands (such as weddings and funerals), and otherwise look out for Y’s interests. The relationship is normally one-to-many. A patron with only one client won’t get much benefit. The patron-client relationship is the basic building block on which complex power structures are constructed. Patrons in one relationship will be clients in a relationship with someone with even higher status (and one component of your status is the strings you can pull higher up the pyramid). And a client may serve more than one patron in different spheres of life.
The Thai word for what we call here ‘patron-client’ (‘upatham’) has positive connotations and is closely connected to a concept of moral obligation where debtors feel that they owe the money-lender not just repayment of principal and interest at extortionate rates, but a sense of gratitude for giving them a loan in the first place.
The fact that the patron-client system builds vertical relationships between people at different social levels means that analyses of Thai power structures based on class solidarity are difficult.

7. In addition to the near-universal sense that HM the King serves as father to the nation, all government officials (and this includes military and police personnel and otherwise independent academics in state universities) are called ‘kharatchakan’. This translates as ‘servants of the King’.

8. Consider, for example, how difficult it is to use personal pronouns in Thai. Whichever way you choose to refer to yourself (and there are many), you automatically indicate your social status vis-?-vis the person you’re talking to. Perfectly feasible (though sometimes ticklish) when you know each other. Nigh impossible when you don’t.

9. There were undoubtedly also areas of lawlessness and violence, especially at those points where the agricultural frontier was being pushed into unclaimed land.

10. There are reasons to think that the physical needs of agriculture in monsoon climates have affected social development. So-called ‘hydraulic’ societies needed a much higher degree of collective effort to control the supply of water for rain-fed paddy farming than was needed in the more individual systems of agriculture that were possible in temperate zones. Community cooperation therefore acquired a higher value than the assertion of individual rights and freedoms.

11. Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, ‘Thailand: Economy and Politics’, 2003, Oxford University Press.

12. It would be an exaggeration to think that such committees are democratically elected. For many years, the Department of Local Administration ‘oversaw’ the election of village and subdistrict bodies with local government responsibilities. But whenever the Bangkok-appointed and almost certainly non-local District Officer thought that the elections produced the wrong result, he could cancel them. This was termed ‘guided’ democracy. It never seemed to attract the international opprobrium that the 19 September coup attracted.

13. Universal suffrage (even when it excluded all women) was anathema to both the landed aristocracy and the emerging capitalists. To them, it made far more sense if one’s power to make decisions affecting society as a whole was commensurate with one’s stake in that society – the more you had, you more power you deserved. This view of democracy is, of course, still practised by the World Bank and IMF.

14. This policy initiative is based on the theory of Hernando de Soto that poor people lack assets, such as land titles, business permits, vending permits, even titles to a fishing area in the sea, against which they can raise capital. By granting formal private property titles, the poor than can access credit and more effectively work their way out of poverty. The theory is popular with the World Bank, USAID and a number of pro-free market think- tanks and publications, although it has been subject to much criticism about how it plays out in practice. De Soto was invited to Thailand by Thaksin to further promote his ideas.

15. Defining what exactly what these four measures do reveals some interesting differences in economic opinion. These measures create opportunities for credit (and, automatically, debt). However, to economist Dr Kitti Limskul, founding member of Thai Rak Thai, they represent ‘direct income transfers to the poor’ (Wichit Chantanusornsiri, ‘Alternatives to Thaksinomics’ Bangkok Post, 11 October 2006). Villagers who have defaulted on loans from the Village Fund might be hard pressed to think they have received any ‘direct income transfer’ .

16. Like all government officials, military officers retire on the 30 September after their 60th birthday. There is also no ‘up-or-out’ system to avoid a log- jam of high-ranking officers approaching retirement. This means the annual reshuffle list is the subject of intense lobbying among different factions, and it is no coincidence that September/October is “coup season” in Thailand. The normal result is that no faction gains overwhelming power and overall power of the military is conflicted and hence diluted. It seems that in 2006 Thaksin was manipulating friendly officers in their early-to-mid-fifties (Thaksin’s contemporaries in pre-cadet training) into positions so as to ensure domination of the top of the military hierarchy for years to come.

17. The military are responsible for episodes such as the deaths of detainees after the Tak Bai incident on 25 October 2004. After a demonstration outside a police station in the south turned violent, with the deaths of seven demonstrators from gunfire, the military arrested about 1,300 men, handcuffed them behind their backs and loaded them onto trucks ‘stacked like logs’. 78 died of suffocation on the journey to a detention camp. When the first deaths were discovered, it appears that no action was taken to prevent deaths in later trucks. No military officer has been charged with any offence concerning these deaths, which were condemned by a number of human rights organizations as gross violations of human rights.

18. There are regular and credible reports of mistreatment and torture of persons in police custody, consistent with the assumption that violations of human rights constitute the normal way of doing business for some police officers.

19. Also remarkable is the lack of pressure on those who don’t wear yellow. Besides being the colour of His Majesty, yellow is the colour of Buddhism.

20. The Midnight University is a free non-formal education initiative originally inspired by academics at Chiang Mai University. Its webpage carries thousands of academic articles and claimed 2.5 million hits a month. After the webpage carried protests against the coup, it was closed down (apparently without the prior knowledge of the acting Minister of Information and Communication Technology) on 30 September. It has chosen to remain censored, rather than relocate to an offshore server.

21. In the impromptu nature of much post-coup business, the appointments were made public before the appointees had been approached, and some of these had been openly critical of the coup.