As the pro-democracy protests have gained strength over the past few days, they’ve been met by open opposition from Prayut Chan O-cha’s government.
As of October 20, the government has unsuccessfully, but very visibly, employed a diversity of tactics: from shutting down public transit, to censoring independent media, to raiding small bookstores, and arresting protesters and prominent protest leaders.
Less visibly, the protests have begun to stoke counter-currents of dissent among the elite.
On Instagram stories, in LINE chats, in closed family events, Facebook posts, another narrative is forming: that this isn’t the time, that this is not the “right” way to do things, that this will just further deepen divisions within our society, that democracy isn’t “black and white,” that protestors don’t understand the nuances of the institutions they are critiquing, that the ‘good’ Thai citizen can’t just be defined by being outwardly political – there are other things elites are contributing to society, they say, that the protestors don’t appreciate.
A myriad of reasons, the list goes on.
The most recurrent argument: that protesters do not truly understand what a ‘true democracy’ really is.
The words are written by a new generation of the Thai elite, but they have startling resonance with the PDRC narrative of 2013 / 2014, and even before then – with narratives of the 2006 coup, the 1991 coup. This is a familiar scene for Thai political actors.
The dissent is indicative of a deeper problem within Thai society: Thailand’s Elite Coup Culture.
Who are the Thai Elite?
‘Elite’ is a broad term, poorly defined and often overused. If everyone, from students studying abroad to civil servants in the diplomatic corps are considered members of the ‘elite’, what work does the term still do? In this analysis, we limit our critique of the ‘elite’ strictly to members of the Thai upper class, mostly urban, some with links to the monarchy or the government.
Understandably, there is diversity of opinion even among these ranks – but dissenters are usually considered outliers. By and large, there is (and historically has been) elite consensus on mass uprising.
Thailand’s Elite Coup Culture
21st century Thai politics has been defined by polarization – a dynamic centered around Thai elite and commoners. The class divide is distinct: according to a Credit Suisse research report, Thailand has one of the highest wealth gaps, where the bottom 10% of Thais hold 0% of the country’s wealth, while the richest 10% hold a massive 86%.
Part of what drives this elite / commoner divide in politics is contrasting definitions of democracy. Thai elites have played by the rules of “Thai-style democracy,” where Thailand is governed semi-democratically by a conservative royal-military-bureaucratic alliance. This was particularly true of the pre-1992 era, when the government was volleyed between different factions of the army – first Plaek Phibunsongkram, then Sarit Thanarat, then Thanom Kittikachorn, and finally General Suchinda Krapayoon.
While the 1997 Constitution was meant to promote the participation of “the people” in political processes and policy-making, the democratization of Thai politics produced the Thai elite’s worst nightmare: the emergence of a rural-capitalist coalition, led by Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai Party.
Since then, elite politics in Thailand has been the undoing of the pandora’s box of ‘Western’ democracy, in an attempt to reclaim the “Thai-style democracy” of old.
For the new generation of the youth-led pro-democracy movement, the notion of a Thai-style democracy is not only obsolete, but unsustainable and has contributed greatly to the inequality and tyranny that besets Thailand for the past decade. Their new reality of a free, democratic Thailand is this: if the system so far has only benefited a mere select few, then what’s the point of having it? Out with the old, in with the new, the future is what we make.
For Thai elite and the establishment, that notion is not only divisive and over-idealistic, but haphazardous and unsophisticated.
What the Coup Mindset Looks Like Today
It is unsurprising, then, that in the midst of the greatest democracy movement Thailand has witnessed since the 1970s, a new generation of Thai elite have emerged with a mindset inherited from their forebears.
Across social media posts and conversations, familiar narratives have re-emerged:
Protesters don’t understand the workings of Thai politics well enough. Once again, exceptionalist claims are made in the name of “Thai Style Democracy” about a system so opaque that both the people and the world couldn’t possibly understand.
“The People Can’t Rule for Themselves”
That protesters don’t understand what it takes to govern. A Facebook post has made the rounds on LINE, mocking protesters for their references to the French Revolution of 1789. “What they don’t know is that in 1789 …the poors ended up poorer and with no rights.”
There is elite anxiety, writes Professor Nicholas Farrelley of ANU, over the quality and power of Thailand’s democratic institutions and the elected politicians who control them. The ‘poors’ may have been getting poorer under elite rule in the 21st century, but somehow, democracy will only worsen their economic situation.
This was the key narrative of 2013, which sought to discredit the Red Shirt uprising as a lower-class and less educated group of people who were supposedly misusing the majority vote to achieve short-term gains over long-term benefits for society (as defined by the PDRC and the Democrat Party).
The argument has also been used to explicitly justify working with the military.
The Abhisit Vejjajiva-led Democrat Party took the helm after the 2006 coup, precisely because they understood their role as ‘clean’ technocrats who would look further than the foolhardy demands of the people to achieve progress in the name of ‘true democracy.’
Most dangerously, today’s protesters are expected to fail – as they did between 1973 – 1976 – even if they do achieve some measure of power. A power vacuum may emerge, foreign agents may move in on Thailand like the CCP did in 1976.
One can only ask what foreign agents would have the time and energy to move in on Thailand today. The United States has their hands full, even ISIS is hesitant about further overseas expansion. And one can only recall that in 1976, it was the military once again that filled the power vacuum, as it has unfailingly done throughout Thai history. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t worried the elite.
Protestors are merely tools of one politician or one party. Recently, a picture of protesters handling money at a protest site raised alarm in conservative quarters – had Chavalit Yongchaiyudh come back to pay the motorcyclists? Or was it Thaksin stoking the flames from abroad? Or perhaps more local politicians – Chuwit [Kamolvisit], or Newin [Chidchob] (or Thanathorn [Juangroongruangkit])? The pantheon of ‘bad guys’ in the Thai political arena is constantly invoked. This time, allegations are compounded by the suspicion that the students are tools of the same Western governments that funded the Hong Kong protests (hence their suspicious similarity and solidarity).
Moving Past Elite Coup Culture
Today’s protesters are once again calling for further democratization of democratic institutions. It feels like 1973, like 1992, like 2010. But the tragedy of the Elite Coup Mindset is that it has remained unchanged, despite the transformations that have shaken Thai political culture. Notions of nationhood and legitimacy – who deserves to be ‘A Good, True Thai’ – remain closely guarded.
In the words of Professor Farrelley: “The persistence of coup-making, long after democratic institutions were assumed to be robust, indicates that some of the fundamental structures of Thai political life have not been shifted by burgeoning democratic instincts.”
This is not to say that things can never change – far from it.
Thai elites must grapple with the reality that the lived experiences of their fellow, common Thais are just as real and nuanced as theirs. Elite Thais have won and benefited from the system, but the system has failed millions others: over 90 percent of Thais, whose income sits far below US$10,000 per year, who continue to be overlooked, unprotected, undermined by the state.
To discount the protesters as having inadequate or misguided understandings of Thailand and its history is to discount the very real experiences and barriers they face on a daily basis. That their definitions of nationhood may be different but are just as valid. That their opinions are legitimate, informed by a wealth of on-the-ground experience.
How do we move forward? By engaging in dialogue that recognizes the fullness of the other’s reality and truth. And some elites are learning to listen. Some are learning that they aren’t always the protagonists and decision-makers of the Thai story. That ‘the people’ know what they’re doing.
Today’s elites know the stakes are high. Things are being said that have never been said before. “The future of Thailand hangs in the balance,” write historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit. “The country has a choice. Everyone has a part in that choice.”
This is not the time to be defensive, but rather to listen and engage. It is also a time to recognize how similar elite narratives – deployed at different times across Thai history – have led to repressive outcomes. How Elite Coup Culture has enabled authoritarianism, time and again.
The critique is not intended to embarrass or to blame. It is intended to prompt serious reflection, at a pivotal moment in history. Change may look uncomfortable and, indeed, create anxiety, but it is inevitable and necessary. Everyone can and should be part of this change.
A truly unified future for Thailand lies in recognizing struggles across the class divide.