Two years to the month since the army in Thailand launched its latest takeover of government, the proof of its success is in the mayhem and madness on the streets of Bangkok and the utter farce to which politics there has again descended.
On the one side is a prime minister who is as much an accident of history as a denier of it, a dinosaur politician who should by now have been extinct from public life, let alone leading it; a man who at times can hardly form a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent government.
He and the gaggle of Thaksinites that gathered around him in a rebranded party for last year’s ballot were at the time cast as saviors of the masses, come to take democracy back from the generals. They may have won the vote, but the army, which quietly shelved plans for its own candidates, had in the meantime moved the playing field.
On the other side is an alliance of people united in their hatred of the ousted prime minister, and increasingly, of anybody else connected to him; an alliance motivated to oppose the elected government’s plans to amend a Constitution that a military junta forced down the country’s throat.
It is also an alliance whose foremost demand on behalf of democracy is that it wants less of it, and that too at a time that the country already has less of it than it did before the army had its way in September 2006. Half of the 150 seats in the Senate are now appointees, and how many people know who they are or how they got there, let alone what they do?
That the whole parliamentary process is at its lowest ebb since the early 1990s is exactly what the generals and their backers intended. Although the coup was aimed at removing that manager and manipulator of party politics, Thaksin Shinawatra, and dismantling his network, he was just the embodiment of the main target: the party political system itself.
Why are the armed forces of Thailand, or rather, their leaders, so hostile to a working party-based system of elected government?
In part because Thailand had the fortune never to be colonized, it did not become a home to political movements of the sort that grew from the historic nationalist struggles in some of its neighbors. There was never a Congress Party or Freedom League to emerge along with new ideas about political process and participatory government.
Instead, successive military regimes forged their own brand of mass politics and took it upon themselves to organize and direct people toward the sort of tasks that might otherwise have been undertaken by political parties, shaping an image of modernity in their own likenesses.
After all that, the May 1992 fiasco was a big fall from grace for the army. It had failed to keep up with changing public sentiment. Its image of modernity was no longer that of millions of its compatriots. It had lost the plot.
In 1997 the new Constitution greatly enhanced the authority of civilian and independent bodies as against those of the old powerbrokers, and strengthened the hand of parliamentary government considerably.
Thaksin recognized the opportunities and took every one that he could get, at the expense of many lives and liberties. But he also did something that had not been done before, successfully building a party with widespread appeal that campaigned both on policy and on personality.
Contrast that with the old-style alliance that Samak Sundaravej cobbled together last year. When asked about policies, he said that they’d take care of them later. What policies his Thai Rak Thai-lookalike party had campaigned upon were in fact recycled from the former government. After that, it was just one cock-up after another.
Back in 2006 amid the blind euphoria at Thaksin’s demise, a few sane voices warned that the military coup would, first, wind the country’s political clock back to the 1980s, and second, not end turmoil and violence but only exacerbate both for years to come.
Unfortunately, both of those warnings have proven correct. Today Thailand is slipping toward the “half-sail” democracy of earlier decades. A triumvirate of soldiers and a policeman is running Bangkok. Whatever happens, the street battles and confused yelling from camp to camp are not going to end any time soon. Why should they? After all, they are the fruits of the coup-makers’ victory.