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The Strange Elite Politics Behind Thailand’s Military Coup

Thailand's modern era has now seen so many coups that scholars have lost count. On Thursday, the Thai military once more overthrew the government, marking the 12th coup since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. But between the failed coups, aborted putsches, and successful revolts, scholars don't really know many times a Thai government has experienced a violent challenge to its rule.

"Please share your knowledge to help us count Thailand's military coups once-and-for-all," Nicholas Farrelly, a Southeast Asia scholar and a professor at Australian National University, wrote on the website New Mandala this week.

Despite robust economic growth and fitful steps toward full democratization, Thailand can't seem to escape from under the shadow of its long history of military coups. Prior to this week's events, which saw the military first impose martial law and then remove the government outright, the last coup occurred in 2006, when the army ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This time around, it's Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her political allies who find themselves in the military's cross-hairs.

With soldiers surrounding government buildings and tanks parked in the streets of Bangkok, the Thai military is casting itself as a purveyor of order. "In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again?.?.?.?and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power," Gen. Prayuth Chan-ochoa said in a televised address to the nation.

The military has also detained politicians on either side of the country's political divide, including the prominent protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which allows it to claim a patina of neutrality in Thailand's increasingly bitter political sparring. Thailand's aggressive anti-government protesters have succeeded in sowing chaos in the run-up to the coup, carrying out protests for the last six months and clashing violently with the government. At least 25 people have died and images of streets shut down by protesters have only reinforced Thailand's image as as a tinderbox of Southeast Asia. As a result, revenue from tourism, a crucial sector of the economy, has seen a marked decline.

In carrying out a coup and deploying soldiers to the streets, the Thai army has at least brought that unrest to an end. As has occurred with previous Thai coups, the return to order on the streets will surely be enough to lead some to call Thursday's events "good coup." That would be a mistake.

We've often written about the concept of a so-called "democratic coup" here at Foreign Policy, and this isn't one. If the notion of a democratic coup sounds oxymoronic, consider the examples Ozan Varol, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, cites in his research on the matter: the Turkish coup of 1960 that saw the overthrow of the Democrat Party, which had cracked down on civil and press rights; the 1974 coup in Portugal that saw the end of the Estado Novo military government; and the 2011 coup that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The last example illustrates how fraught the concept of a democratic coup remains. In the aftermath of Mubarak's fall, Egyptian voters elected a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, as the country's new president. Morsi himself was removed from power a short time later after millions of protesters took to the streets to decry his government and accuse it of trying to impose theocratic law. Three years later, Morsi is facing criminal charges, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been imprisoned, and Egypt is hurtling toward what increasingly appears likely to become a new military dictatorship.

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.

But there's a more important reason why Thailand will probably never see a democratic coup: its Borgian elite politics that made military intervention an accepted tool of maintaining the elite's grip on power.  The current political stand-off centers on the enduring political divide between the country's elite and a political movement led by the Shinawatra clan and with its powerbase in rural areas. Shinawatra's populist political movement has redistributed power in Thailand away from the elite networks that dominate the capital, and this has made the country's army officers, judges, monarchists, and bureaucrats profoundly worried. The only problem is that Bangkok's elites are completely incapable of cobbling together an electoral coalition capable of winning a national election.

In a fascinating 2013 paper Farrelly -- yes, the poor scholar asking for your help tallying Thailand's coups -- paints a portrait of a craven Thai elite that gladly sends the military into the streets for motives both nefarious and underhanded. Farrelly quotes a 1972 article that describes a coup of the previous year. It could just as well have run today:

The actual causes of the [November 17, 1971] coup lay in Thailand's factional politics, the legislative threat to bureaucratic privilege, and pressure from younger military officers to do away with the trappings of democracy to protect their own political power base.

While Thailand's king is a revered figure, the country's elite has come to use him as a pawn in their attempts to hold on to power. Farrelly argues that Thailand's coup culture is largely centered around the idea of protecting the king, the threats to whom are mostly manufactured reasons to send tanks into the streets. But the safety of the monarchy has nonetheless become a rhetorical gloss whose continued deployment provides the basis of an elite culture all too willing to use the military to achieve its political goals.

Indeed, on Thursday Gen. Prayuth assured Thailand that the military "will protect and worship the monarchy."

The same can't be said about the country's struggling democracy.   

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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Obama Has Spent Seven Years Promising to Fix the VA. Too Bad He Hasn’t Done So.

"No veteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care, or wait months -- even years -- to get an appointment at the VA."

President Barack Obama went before the White House press corps Wednesday to promise accountability and a full investigation into claims that dozens of veterans died while waiting to see doctors at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix, but those words were actually made nearly seven years ago. In the summer of 2007, Obama appeared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars to pledge to clean up the VA and deliver more timely care to America's veterans. The problems he was promising to address were strikingly similar to those at the heart of the current scandal, and his tough talk then Wednesday was striking similar to his tough talk then.

"When I hear allegations of misconduct -- any misconduct -- whether it's allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it.  Not as Commander-in-Chief, but also not as an American," Obama said on Wednesday. "So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it -- period."

While many observers expected Obama to fire Eric Shinseki, the retired Army four-star general who has served as his sole VA secretary, the former general managed to emerge from his White House meeting with the president with his job still in hand. Republicans have pounced on allegations of mismanagement within the department, which could shape up as a major scandal for the White House ahead of this fall's highly-contested midterm elections.

The scandal is only made more politically potent by the fact that Obama has spent most of his career as politician describing himself as an advocate for veterans and has repeatedly promised to reform the VA. During the 2007 speech, delivered while serving as a senator and a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Obama pledged to deliver better service to American veterans and to overhaul a system that has all too often become shorthand for waste, inefficiency, and staggering wait times.

"We know that the sacred trust cannot expire when the uniform comes off," he said. "When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation's heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored."

Two years later, in 2009, Obama was back before the VFW delivering a similar pledge: "cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner." The newly-elected president said that he planned to announce a competition among the VA's branch offices to come up with new ways of doing business, the best of which would be quickly funded and implemented.

But in that speech, Obama also hinted at the difficulty of overhauling an organization that has shown itself remarkably resistant to change. "I know you've heard this for years, but the leadership and resources we're providing this time means that we're going to be able to do it," he said, referring to his effort to cut through the VA bureaucracy. "That is our mission, and we are going to make it happen."

By the time he returned to the VFW in the midst of his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama's frustration had only grown. What was once a sense of invigorating optimism had been replaced in part by a weariness and anger at the VA's practices.  "When I hear about servicemembers and veterans who had the courage to seek help but didn't get it, who died waiting, that's an outrage," Obama said.  

A year later, in March 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed what was perhaps behind that anger. According to a report by Aaron Glantz, when Obama took office in 2009, the number of veterans who were waiting more than a year for their benefits stood at 11,000. By December 2012, that number had ballooned to 245,000. That increase has been driven in large part by a growing number of veterans seeking benefits -- both newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan but also veterans from previous wars who have sought benefits under revised guidelines.

For a politician who before entering the White House pledged "comprehensive reform" at the VA the failure to get that number under control is surely frustrating. But that frustration also surely pales in comparison to what is felt by the hundreds of thousands who populate the VA's wait lists.     

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images