Experiencing the 2006 Thai Coup: Reflections on Asian Values and Democracy
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I confess that I was watching HBO in English instead of one of the Thai channels, when the TV signal suddenly went out. Instead of the usual black-and-white fuzziness that often replaces programming here in Bangkok during the rainy season, a picture of the King appeared, accompanied by Thai patriotic music. Scanning through the channels, the King’s likeness persisted on every screen. I thought that it must be some Thai holiday I had managed to miss while engaged in my research, but the next morning’s newspaper headlines revealed the truth: “Bathiwat!”—Coup D’Etat!
This past September, the army seized control of the Thai government in a bloodless coup, the country’s 24th in 74 years. As tanks swarmed the streets of the capital, shocked observers witnessed the most vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia suddenly revert to an authoritarian government. While I was frantically trying to gather as much information on the coup as possible, the Thais in my neighborhood remained surprisingly calm. Even after 14 years of democratic institutions and a Western reputation as the model Southeast Asian democracy, middle-class Thais seemed unperturbed, and glad to see Thaksin Shinawatra ousted.
Middle-class urbanites have long been portrayed as apathetic and complacent. Yet it was the urbanites who had grown impatient with Thaksin’s policies, protested in masses, and opened the way for his ousting. Contributing to the demise of democracy, however, seems contrary to past anti-military movements in the 1970s and most recently in 1992, when at least 50 people died.
Explaining this ambivalent behavior of the Thai middle class, I resurrect the Asian values debate. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, once argued that Asian societies valued consensus, stability, harmony, and morality over political competition and Western notions of freedom. Is what we are witnessing in the Thai middle class a reaction to un-Asian values? Thaksin and past military regimes perhaps share in common both instability and immorality. But can either or both Asian and Western values fully describe the aspirations and values of the Bangkok middle class?
There is a third possible explanation. As I follow the rhetoric of the current criticism of the Thai military government, neither Western or Asian values seem to be the focus. There are few demands for freedom of speech, government accountability, and other associated democratic values. Neither is the current regime characterized as immoral or breeding instability. Instead, I see the middle class as being dedicated to economic well-being.
I recently attended a rousing political protest on Silom Road (a major business area), one of many gatherings taking place all over Bangkok with increased frequency and purpose. Two things struck me from this event. First, perhaps the portrayal of an indifferent Thai middle class needs qualifying. After all, over 100,000 of them protested against Thaksin last year. Such activity does not exude apathy to me. Second, the focus of the protest seemed to be on the economic effects of the current regime. Democracy is just a means, but economic well-being is the end.
The middle-class Thais I have encountered seem to value democracy more for its perceived connection to the Thai economy. Not only are financial markets ambivalent about the military regime, but tourists are less likely to visit a non-democratic country, so local retail suffers too. Such thinking seems no different than former Prime Minister and Senior Statesman Pridi Phanomyong who, following WWII, urged Thailand to mimic Western political institutions or risk losing their respect and their trade. Thus, the odd coup here and there may be acceptable in the short-run, but the middle class will work to secure democracy in the long-run only because of its perceived connection to economic security.
Thais are not unique in this commitment to economic security over democracy. Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Malaysians, and even the Chinese seem ambivalent over their countries’ political form as long as their economies continue to burgeon. Already the military has seriously blundered economic policy in Thailand and, as if on cue, the middle class is pressing the political pendulum to swing back to democracy once again—the form of government perceived to best aid economic growth. Judging by the current climate in Thailand, that is going to take place sooner rather than later.
Joel Selway is a PhD candidate in political science, currently in Thailand on a Fulbright-Hayes award to conduct his doctoral field research on ethnicity, poverty, and public policy. Joel won the Center for Southeast Asian Studies’ Moscotti Best Paper award for 2006.