In recent weeks, Thailand has been awash in rumors of an impending coup, which would be the second in four years, and the last one led to the current downward spiral in Thai politics. Some Thais believe that elements of the military loyal to the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra “red shirts” want to remove the current, anti-Thaksin government. Others think that the current Bangkok government, led by the Democrat Party, eventually will have to call an election and will lose to Puea Thai, the pro-Thaksin party; the military would then step in and prevent Puea Thai from controlling Parliament.
Either way, a coup would be a disaster. Last time, in 2006, the military demonstrated that it could not manage Thailand’s sophisticated economy and complex civil society, spooking foreign and domestic investors.
A coup now also would prove a critical test for Washington. Last time, the United States, which had no love for Thaksin, essentially condoned the coup, and did not cancel the Cobra Gold joint military exercises. The thinking was that the government that replaced Thaksin eventually would be more progressive and pro-U.S.; and, that an ally like Thailand, which has been helpful to the war on terror, was not worth alienating, especially when doing so might push Bangkok closer to Beijing.
That was a mistake. By choosing sides against the will of the majority of Thais, the United States potentially alienated large portions of the country. And, while Thaksin was a badly flawed leader, the current government has hardly shown itself to be more progressive; Human Rights Watch’s annual report denouncing its widespread abuses. The government also has not been able to use its time with Thaksin out of the country to win over more poor, rural voters, the key to elections. And while a harsher line toward Bangkok might indeed push the Thai government closer to China, Beijing still cannot provide much of what Bangkok needs, like sophisticated military-military cooperation and training. No, in 2010 sanctioning a coup can no longer be an option.