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A brief history of Thai military takeovers

May 22 is the first anniversary of Thailand’s 12th successful coup since the country’s first failed constitution in 1932. Photo by Ken Kobayashi.

BANGKOK -- May 22 marks the first anniversary of Thailand's deepest military coup in more than a generation, when Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha took control of this Southeast Asian nation bedeviled by irresponsible political classes, a beached economy and an ineffective judiciary.

     The army chief forestalled further political violence, first with martial law and two days later with an actual coup d'etat. Politicians, academics and journalists were rounded up, given haircuts and boot camp lectures, and told to pipe down. Some fled.

     Prayuth presents his putsch as a matter of national salvation. Such direct and personal control has not been seen since Gen. Kriangsak Chomanand removed unpopular Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien in late 1977. Thanin, an autocratic, right-wing judge favored by the military and the palace, promised to establish democracy in Thailand within 12 years. He was installed after appalling violence around Thammasat University; leftist students were lynched, hung from trees near the Grand Palace and burned.

     Thailand's four successful coups after 1976 have at least been bloodless. As he grapples with the complexities of a floundering economy -- Southeast Asia's second largest -- the mercurial Prayuth can take some credit for damping restiveness. So far, so good.     

     However, like Kriangsak nearly 40 years ago, he has gone a step further by abrogating political power and then stepping up as prime minister. Indeed, there is more. Section 44 of the interim constitution grants him almost unlimited powers for anything deemed of national interest. Herein lies a degree of personal control reminiscent of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, the prime minister from 1958 to 1963.

     Like Kriangsak and Sarit, Prayuth has diverged from the practice of appointing a prime minister from outside the coup process -- or even from retired military circles. Kriangsak himself stepped down in 1980, and was replaced by the retiring army chief Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda in a "silent" coup. Prem governed for eight years, seeing off attempted coups in 1981 and 1985 and various assassination plots.

     In 1991, army chief Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon handed the premiership to diplomat-turned-businessman Anand Panyarachun; he quickly formed a competent cabinet but stayed only 13 months. Following a military power play and bloodshed in May 1992, Anand was reappointed for a very brief second term by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In a fleeting assertion of civilian authority, Anand transferred a handful of top commanders to inactive posts, but no subsequent action was taken against them.

     In 2006, army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and replaced him with another former army chief and privy councilor, Gen. Surayud Chulanont. Surayud's government produced none of the good housekeeping of the Anand governments, and conspicuously failed to nail Thaksin for the alleged wrongdoings used to justify his removal. But Surayud's government lasted less than 16 months, and exited with a constitution endorsed by national referendum.

     Definitions vary, but Thailand has had 21 coup attempts since the overthrow of its notionally "absolute" monarchy in 1932. Of these, 12 succeeded. Thailand is considered one of the most coup-afflicted countries in the world, but actually had none in the 1960s during an extended period of military dictatorship, and both attempts in the 1980s failed. Apart from the notable lack of violence, Thailand is today one of a relatively small number of coup-affected countries -- Burundi, Egypt and Yemen among them.  

     Thailand has had 19 interim or full constitutions since 1932; the longest lasted from 1997 to 2006, less than nine years. Many have been complicated -- designed not just to affirm rights but to thwart nefariousness.

     Thailand's most chronic problem, however, may not rest with coups or constitutions discarded like old dresses, but with all the interest groups that even after 80 years have failed to learn the language of basic democracy and mutual respect. The military are not alone to blame for all this.

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