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Answer from Laura Beth Hooper, Research focus on Thai politics.
Over the past several years, the focus of my research has dealt with this very question.
And to answer your question, I would assert this: Thailand's political tradition has evolved in such a way as to render the coup d'etat a political tool.
Political traditions are crucial pieces of the informal rules that govern the way that we organize ourselves. Sometimes, these traditions are formalized (such as judicial review, U.S.) whereas other remain informal (like abstract judicial review, U.S.). They are based upon years of cultural and historical build up and are very difficult to change.
How did the coup become so normalized in the Thai political tradition? It all began when, in 1932, modern Thailand's first military coup transitioned the country from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. At the time, the transition was hailed as the apotheosis of a seamless and bloodless democratic movement. However, in reality, it was a greater reflection of the general disengagement of Thailand’s citizens from the political sphere than any particular finesse in the implementation of the transition to democracy. And indeed, the power holders in the government reflected this indifference; for years, military and civilian leaders vied for power with nary a thought to the well-being of the people that they purportedly led.
This was further complicated by the frequent intervention of Thailand’s reigning king of 65 years: Bhumibol Adulyadej. Revered by all sectors of society and a linchpin of the Thai political landscape, Bhumibol and his cohorts (such as ally General Prem Tinsulanonda) tended to support whichever faction would provide a greater advantage to the monarchy—thus adding yet another layer of complexity to Thailand’s instability. [A quick note: "civilian leaders" in the 1932–1992 time period refers to civilian elite rule, not democracy; there was a brief reprieve from this in 1973, but that is another story for another day.]
A shift in this pattern of civil-military elite coup transitions occurred when, in 1991, Thailand’s military overthrew the government for the 17th time. The middle class responded with unprecedented widespread protests that (after substantial military retaliation) eventually resulted in the installment of a new civilian government and a period of economic stability and prosperity. This advent of civil liberty was reflected by the creation of a new constitution in 1997 which was lauded domestically and abroad for its emphasis on transparency, fairness, liberalism and accountability.
The year 1992 is crucial to understanding Thailand today. It saw unprecedented mobilization of all varieties of Thai people (not just the college students of the 1970s). And, it showed that the coup d'etat need not only be a tool of civilian and military elites—it could be a tool of the people as well. The concept of "coup culture" in Thailand, should most appropriately be thought of as pre-1992 and post-1992.
No longer could military and civil elites trade power with an impunity built upon the apathy of the Thai people.
In the 2000s, the Thai people split into Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. Red Shirts favor ousted politician Thaksin Shinawatra and, more recently, his sister Yingluck. Made up mostly of the rural and poor, they far outnumber the Yellow Shirts. The Yellow Shirts, however, make up for what they lack in numbers with political power (they hold sway over the courts and military).
It is now 2014. Recently, the military overthrew what remained of the red-leaning Pheu-Thai party's government and declared martial law. If it behaves as it has in the past, it will most likely retain power until it feels that things have calmed enough for elections to be held. Whether or not these elections will be fair is another matter entirely.
What we do know, is that the polarization that once characterized relations between civilian and military elites (resulting in pre-1991 coup culture), now characterizes the relations between Thailand's urban-upper classes and rural poor (resulting in modern coup culture). As long as these deep rifts persist in Thai society, the coups will continue.
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