The politics of international sanctions: the 2014 coup in Thailand.

Author:Chachavalpongpun, Pavin
Position:Regional Case Studies - Case study

Following the coup of 22 May 2014 in Thailand, the military has striven to narrow the democratic space while curtailing many forms of freedom. But even with the worst kind of authoritarianism, political legitimacy remains fundamental for the longevity of the regime. To prolong its political life, the military has embarked on distributing economic benefits to the people in an effort to acquire acceptance and loyalty through various populist programs, a practice made famous by its political nemesis, the Shinawatra political clan. For example, the military has ordered the disbursement of funds owed to poor farmers by the previously deposed government under a rice subsidy program. For the military, its survival depends on popular appeal. To keep the people happy, the military must demonstrate its ability to deliver economic benefits; and this partly hinges on how much the West perceives the suspension of democratic freedoms as a threat. Thailand is vulnerable to sanctions as it is linked to global supply chains of crucial commodities. The disruption of these links would impact the local economy and thus local consumers. Flere, international sanctions have the potential to influence the behavior of the Thai junta. The United States and the European Union have warned that they may take more aggressive measures, including boycotting Thai products, if the military fails to restore democracy soon. Harsher sanctions will affect the economic livelihood of Thais and could consequently defy the legitimacy of the military regime.


The Thai military staged a coup on 22 May 2014--the nineteenth coup since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932. (1) Since the coup, the military has attempted to take full control of politics ahead of the uncertain royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne since 1946, serving as a symbol of political stability through many tumultuous periods in the history of Thailand. But the era of Bhumibol is coming to an end and the only heir apparent, crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is unpopular, thus raising the level of anxiety among the traditional elite whose interests have long been invested in the powerful monarchy. This article argues that the recent putsch was primarily a scheme to ensure that the military and the traditional elite would dominate the royal transition; yet, it was carried out in the name of protecting democracy. This process has weakened democratic institutions and stripped away people's basic rights, including the right to assemble and freedom of expression. Thailand has arrived at yet another political deadlock. The response from the international community has been crucial. Some Western countries have imposed "soft sanctions" on the regime. (2) In the aftermath of the coup, Thailand expected a series of sanctions from its Western allies, but the sanctions have so far been rather limited and target specific. Yet, as this article will show, the Thai military junta has responded to them with great anxiety. The release of a number of political detainees might reflect the military's strategy to seek a degree of understanding from the international community.

To defend its regime, the military has developed ways to gain legitimacy at home. It has concentrated on developing economic policies similar to populist projects first implemented during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration from 2001 to 2006. Today the military is doling out economic perks to the population to procure loyalty and satisfaction. Among other efforts, the military has ordered payments owed to poor farmers under a rice subsidy program by the deposed Yingluck Shinawatra government, which was in power from 2011 to 2014. The ability of the military to provide economic benefits to the people was a key element in maintaining stability and power.

The efficacy of this plan depends heavily on how Western governments respond to the lack of democratic freedoms in post-coup Thailand. Western sanctions have the ability to undercut this stability, directly affecting the Thai people and the Thai economy writ large. Effective sanctions could trigger the discontent of the Thai people and may challenge military rule. Should the West run out of patience with the worsening human rights situation in Thailand, it may intensify economic sanctions which could shift the political dynamic in the country.

More so than many other countries, Thailand's economy is particularly sensitive to sanctions because it is highly integrated into global supply chains for some of its crucial commodities such as rice, automobiles, machinery, and electronics. (3) More severe sanctions would affect the economic livelihood of Thais and surely the legitimacy of the military regime. This article argues that while sanctions are often derided as symbolic and ineffectual, in the case of Thailand, they have proven useful against the coup leaders because of the interwoven relations between the military's legitimacy, its domestic support, and the pressure from the international community. (4) It concludes that the Thai military, despite firmly monopolizing power, is not totally free to conduct its own domestic affairs and is forced to heed the actions of the international community.


Coups are a common phenomenon in Thai politics. Indeed, they are considered a component of Thailand's political culture. The fact that most coups in the past several decades were endorsed by the monarchy seemed to increase the confidence among Thai military leaders who continue to employ coups as weapons to eliminate enemies and to protect their own power interests. (5) This time, too, the coup was blessed by King Bhumibol, and was accepted as a legitimate solution to the political deadlock. The military claimed that the coup was necessary to restore peace and order after months of relentless protests by Bangkok's predominantly middle and upper classes and big business community. The initial agenda of the protesters was clear: They condemned and opposed the ruling Pheu Thai Party's proposal for blanket amnesty, citing that it would set former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra free from his corruption conviction and other charges. Thaksin faces corruption charges related to the purchase of state land by his wife and was sentenced to a two-year term of imprisonment in absentia. Under extreme pressure, Prime Minister Yingluck, Thaksin's sister, dissolved the parliament. But protesters, led by the opposition Democrat Party's Suthep Thaugsuban, were not satisfied by her move since the ultimate goal was to completely remove the Shinawatras from politics. Consequently, they continued to create a situation of instability so as to invite the military to intervene in politics. The result was the recent coup. It is clear that the protesters worked closely with the military to disparage electoral politics. (6)

The royal transition and the ever-growing popularity of the Shinawatras frightened the elite, especially now that the reign of King Bhumibol may soon come to an end. Rumors of a possible political alliance between Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin further deepened the elite's fear that the choice of the Crown Prince may not benefit their political, economic, and social status. Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies succinctly asserted, "It is like a musical chairs game. When the music stops--when the King dies--whoever has power gets to organize the next step." (7) Thus, it can be said that the 22 May coup was a royal coup, designed to reverse the political trend towards democracy in Thailand back to royal political dominance. Despite the fact that Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932, the royal institution has been able to maintain its political power and influence thanks to the backing of the military.

So far, the coup makers have taken a number of bold steps toward perpetuating their political position. For example, an interim constitution was drafted that guarantees the staying power of the military. Article 44 of this interim constitution grants the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)--the governing body of the coup makers--power to unilaterally intervene regardless of its effects on the legislative, executive, or judiciary branches in the name of defending Thailand against threats to public order, national security, the monarchy, national economy, or sovereignty. Moreover, the interim constitution also indicates that any actions taken by the NCPO will be "completely legal and constitutional," particularly in ordering the removal or appointment of the previous government, and that it will be "exempted from any wrongdoings, responsibility and liabilities." (8) Meanwhile, the roster for the newly established National Legislative Assembly (NLA) of 200 members laid bare the military's crude tactic of reserving a large political space for itself. (9) Of the 200 members, 106 are military men (both active and retired); this is eerily similar to Myanmar where 25 percent of the parliamentarian seats are reserved for members of the army. (10) Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha was later approved by the NLA to become Thailand's 29th prime minister. Shortly afterwards, a cabinet was formed, revealing its members to have close connections with the old establishment. (11)

As political machinations have been put in place to ensure the political longevity of the military, the NCPO has cracked down on its critics through arrests and detentions. The NCPO issued a series of orders summoning individuals to report for speaking out against the coup, ultimately to "adjust" their attitude about the political situation. Colonel Winthai Suwaree, spokesperson for the NCPO, guaranteed that the detention would not exceed seven days. However, those refusing to answer the summons could be faced with arrest warrants, up to two years of imprisonment...

To continue reading