Opinion: The Utopian Coup

May 22nd, 2014. Regular programming on television was cut. A panel of generals appeared, and army commander General Prayut Chan-o-cha began speaking. By the time his announcement was over, the Pheu Thai administration was no more. The military had seized power. 

I was delighted. I was in ninth grade, and the fall of the Yingluck government was a moment that I had been anticipating for months. Finally, someone — a good person, if you would — has stepped up to deal the coup de grâce. Now came the time for Thailand to conduct reform before elections, to prevent the corrupt politicians from ever seizing power again. The Thaksin regime would, thankfully, be ousted forever. Peace and unity would return. 

Back then, I believed myself to be a pragmatist. Democracy sounds good on paper, but in Thailand, it did not work in practice. If placing our faith in the electoral process means allowing venal and self-interested men to fool the innocent populace, producing a tyranny of the majority that was not indebted to good governance but only to themselves, then surely elections are not the answer?  

On the ground, those who did support the coup had no doubt about its moral righteousness. An idealist can dream for democracy; those less starry-eyed realize the country is not ready. Dictatorship, as ugly as it may sound, could at least bring order to the streets. And it could even bring moral people to power, governing for the good of the nation rather than benefits at the ballot box. Military rule would be transitional, paving the way for the rule of the virtuous.

A utopian vision, perhaps, yet one that so many who believed themselves practical bought into. It reminds me now of what the great Roman orator Cicero said of traditionalist Cato: “he speaks as if he were in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’ cesspool.”

Plato did, after all, argue that the best form of government is an aristocracy of the wisest, where an enlightened autocracy imposes order on the ignorant masses. But the belief that an epistocracy can be built is as unrealistic as it is romantic, whether in antiquity or now. 

Ninth grade me had bought into a mission impossible. “We will keep our promise; just give us a little time,” went the signature song Prayut penned. It ended up taking five years to deliver an election.

In that time, the government did make a sincere effort at creating a utopia. The moralist 2015 draft constitution had, for example, sought nothing less than a behavioural revolution. 

But for whatever reason, the government lost patience with the well-intentioned yet idealistic draft, and settled for the 2017 constitution instead: a charter with the unspoken but more modest goal of ensuring Thaksin could not return to power. It delivered a ‘Thai-style democracy,’ one that allowed a party hopelessly outnumbered in parliament to somehow clinch power. It could even be called a new form of parliamentary dictatorship.

Parliamentary dictatorship? Familiar words to anyone who cheered the coup.

Indeed, so much has happened and yet so little has changed. Utopia unrealized, to put it bluntly. Many who feared Thaksin turn a blind eye to the fact that Prayut employs many of Thaksin’s former ministers while his party is made up of many Thaksinite defectors. A permanent state of semi-democracy is now accepted by those who decried Thaksin’s authoritarian leanings. Similarly, disgust at Thaksin’s “populism” and corruption has often not extended to when the current government is guilty of the same. 

It would be easy to attribute such cognitive dissonance to selfishness. But so many people — like myself — who supported the coup were genuinely convinced that they took the side of the good in a cosmic battle against evil, with the nation’s very survival at stake. 

A duality so deceptively reductionist, yet so appealingly simple. No wonder, then, that so many sided with the regime. 

But the desire of the few to proselytise to the many that they don’t know what was best, and to point them to the supposedly better path, led them to ignore one basic fact: that norms have changed. That expectations matter.

Since the moment Phraya Phahon stepped on the Royal Plaza to declare the establishment of a constitutional state in 1932, Thais have been conditioned to demand democracy. This is a basic political truth. Brute force could suppress it, but could not make this desire go away. 

This, of course, is not an ideological argument. It is the basic recognition that a majority of Thais are not willing to hear that their vote matters less than what 250 appointed senators think. After all, we can already see the results. Six years after the military coup, protests were back until the pandemic cut them off. No less idealistic to think reconciliation can happen under these circumstances than it is to believe that an aristocracy of the wise can be created.

The military coup may be the defining moment in the political consciousness of an entire generation. John F. Kennedy called himself an “idealist without illusions”. I like to believe that the coup and its cynical aftermath would have produced some of these. Two illusions, in particular, were done away. 

First, the illusion of duality. The Thaksin government is not the root of all evil. Neither, of course, is the military government. Both were headed by humans, with all their fallibility. Thaksin did much that was wrong, and so has Prayut. Both also have their merits. One can criticize Prayut for his poor economic performance while accepting that he has done a good job on combating the coronavirus. One can accept that Thaksin’s policies were effective in alleviating rural poverty while decrying his war on drugs. 

Hyper-partisanship must not prevent us from constructive discourse and objective appraisal. We do not have to embark on all-out war to prevent the other side from attaining power. We can disagree agreeably without rolling tanks out on the streets. This is what mutual tolerance is about. 

Second, the illusion that building a sustainable and robust democracy is a harder alternative to a guided democracy. Building democratic institutions is difficult, but it is not impossible — and indeed far easier than creating a semi-dictatorship that everyone can accept. Over half a decade of trying should have made this obvious. 

To create a sustainable democracy, on the other hand, has a simple start: an understanding that if you don’t like an elected government, you can win the argument and vote them out in four years.

And ideally, one last illusion must be dispelled: that military coups have to be a part of Thai political culture. Principles such as constitutionalism and civilian control of the military are not exotic abstractions; they are respected around the world. Of course, Thailand is still far from realizing such goals. Cicero would probably give a rebuke if anyone predicts that the 2014 military coup was our last. 

But one can hope. 

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