On the days when it is functioning normally — no certain thing over the past few years — Thailand has an elected prime minister, a parliament and a polarized but boisterous media scene. Right now, of course, it has none of those things. Instead, Thailand has a general running the country, a government whose ousted leaders have been detained without explanation and a single functioning television network — one broadcasting patriotic music and occasional statements from the junta.
So what happened? And why does this happen to Thailand again and again?
One attempt at an explanation, in five parts:
I. A relatively weak majority and a powerful minority are locked in a long, back-and-forth power struggle
This is the struggle that has bred years of instability. The dispute is nuanced, but for convenience's sake, here are the general strokes: The majority is composed of mostly rural voters in the northern part of the country. The minority is composed more of urban elites and bureaucrats. Each side has tools to gain power, but neither has proven able to keep it. Oh, and they also have well-armed militias.
In every election since 2001, the majority has prevailed and sent its prime minister of choice into office. That would seem to be a significant upper hand in a democracy, but it hasn't been enough. The minority controls Thailand's most powerful institutions — its judiciary, its military — and has used dubious court decisions and coups to oust elected leaders. The minority says it's doing this for the good of the country — and, yes, for democracy. When the majority is in power, it says, corruption is rampant, power abused by a single family, the Shinawatras.
The cycle of elections and ousters has brewed deep-seated grievances on both sides. There have been occasionally flare-ups of violence and frequent street protests. Twice in the past eight years, this has given the military an excuse to intervene.
II. The coups — surprise, surprise — don't unite the country
Twelve successful coups have been staged in Bangkok since 1932, and they tend to exacerbate, rather than mend, divisions. Which is to say, they almost never work the way the military claims they will. In 2006, when tanks rolled into Bangkok and ousted the (majority) government, the military pledged to "bring back normalcy" and "resolve the conflict." Neither happened, and Thailand's majority, known sometimes as the Red Shirts, still points to that coup as a galvanizing force for its fight. In the latest coup Thursday, the military's goals seemed about the same. The military said its move will help the country achieve "peace and order" and "return to normalcy."
The military coups tend not to work because the military is a partisan player, according to some analysts who study Thailand. They say the military serves as one of the key tools of the minority, a group that views itself as the traditional, royalist establishment. The military is very much part of that establishment. The present commander in chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has occasionally said that one of the military's key missions is to protect the institution of the monarchy.
III. The king is (silently) at the center of all this
Thailand's king is Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, and it's hard to overstate his importance in Thailand. He's the world's longest-serving monarch, and perhaps the most revered. His portrait hangs on government buildings, in taxicabs, in living rooms. Politicians often seem in a competition to claim their love for him. It's sort of creepy, at times. Stiff lese majeste laws prevent Thais from speaking about the king in any way that's critical.
The king has long been a behind-the-scenes mediator in Thailand's disputes, but this time around, he appears too ill to play that role. Instead, it's the question about his succession that is driving instability. It's not yet clear who will succeed the king — it could be his far-less-beloved son — but either way, when King Bhumibol passes away, Thailand's constitutional monarchy will be shaken to the core. And Thailand will have at least a partial power vacuum.
For that reason, the stakes are high in Thailand's political duel. Whoever holds office at that time suddenly gains an enormous opportunity: The chance to hold the levers of power at a time of major transition.
"This is an existential fight over who will be in power when the succession takes place," says Ernest Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
IV. Thaksin is sort of in the driver's seat
Thaksin Shinawatra is the other enduring, key figure in Thailand's dispute. He's a billionaire tycoon — hardly a country boy — who galvanized rural voters with populist schemes, some of them fiscally wasteful, some (like cheap health care) a force for improved living standards. Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai. Until earlier this month, his sister, Yingluck, was serving as prime minister. The two spoke often via Skype.
Without being granted amnesty, Thaksin would face graft charges if he returns to Thailand. But he also poses a threat to the minority. Even from abroad, his network of voters reliably sends Thaksin-friendly candidates into office. And more important, Thaksin is tight with Thailand's crown prince. Thaksin invested lots of effort in cultivating that relationship while in office, and the worry for traditional establishment types is a Thaksin-monarchy alliance that cuts them out of the picture.
V. It's not clear what happens next
Thaksin is in Dubai. Many of Thailand's key political figures are in detention. And Yingluck was summoned Friday to a meeting with military brass. The general who now says he's in charge of the country, Prayuth Chan-ocha, hasn't indicated how long the military intends to maintain power — or whether it will relinquish it. Foreign governments from Tokyo to London have urged Thailand to reestablish a civilian government. But some scholars fear that the junta will try to hold power until the king's death.
For now, the coup hasn't incited any violence. The streets of Bangkok appear normal. One can walk for blocks at a time, past malls and street vendors, without seeing a military member.
But the coups, and everything that leads up to them, are stretching the country's tolerance. The danger of this coup might only be apparent when the dust settles, and one side or the other — Thakin's crew, most likely — finds itself further from power than it was before.