Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.06.03

What Makes Thailand Different From Egypt?

JBpress on May 30, 2014

On May 22 a bloodless military coup d'état was announced in Bangkok, almost matter-of-factly, although the Thai military denied that it was conducting a coup when it first declared martial law two days earlier. This incident reminded some in Tokyo of another coup in Cairo less than a year ago. What are the differences between the two similar coups in these two desperately divided developing democracies?

The two coups have more in common than not. In Egypt, a democratically elected president was ousted by the military on July 3, 2013. Millions of protesters demonstrated all over Egypt against then President Morsi, who was an influential leader of the popular Muslim Brotherhood that at least used to represent the silent majority of Egyptians.

In Thailand, the situation is similar. The Royal Thai Armed Forces dissolved the government and parliament of Bangkok, arresting the prime minister, a younger sister of very popular former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who is now in exile. Both the brother and sister Shinawatras were democratically elected in the free elections of 2001 and 2011, respectively.

The two nations are desperately divided as well. Traditionally, the elite minority, including the military, has dominated domestic politics in both Egypt and Thailand. The poor who constitute a silent majority had been virtually voiceless until recently, when free elections were introduced.

The tragedy was that both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Shinawatras in Thailand could win elections but could not embrace political opponents and unite their respective nations. The elite minority is still powerful and resilient. The two nations exemplify the gloomy political reality in many developing countries of the world.

Nonetheless, the two coups in Cairo and Bangkok had different outcomes. In Thailand, despite its dishonorable history of periodical military coups, the latest coup d'état is fairly bloodless and even peaceful at least so far. In Egypt, on the other hand, though only the second military coup since 1952, the situation was much more violent. Why the difference?

Some pundits refer to the religious factor. They claim that Buddhism prevails in Thailand while Egypt is predominantly Islamic, implying that peaceful Buddhism prevents violence. But this is not necessarily true in Thailand. Bangkok's 19 military coups since 1932 clearly show that in some cases Thai coups could be very bloody and violent, causing hundreds of civilian casualties.

Others refer to the colonization factor. They assert that British colonial rule divided Egypt and led to political chaos even after her independence. The lack of western colonial experience in Bangkok, however, has not made the Buddhist nation stable. The reason is more domestic than international. It is clear that the rich-poor divide in Thailand and Egypt destabilizes the nations.

One element which has not been often discussed is the role of the monarchy. In Thailand, the king officially announced his support for the coup on May 26. Although he is not supposed to exercise political authority, he is very popular and highly respected by the Thais and, therefore, the head of state remains a symbol of national unity.

In Egypt, on the contrary, since the first military coup of 1952, the head of state has been the president of the republic and, therefore, subject to change. The weakness of this kind of republican system in developing countries is that the head of state's symbolic status is sometimes vulnerable to day-to-day political criticism.

This is particularly detrimental when a nation is deeply divided. If a president from one party were heavily criticized for political reasons and faced with formidable pressure, he or she would be severely damaged and, of course, so would be the unity of the nation. Ironically, the tragedy of Egypt seems to have started when she lost her monarchy--this, in the land of eternal Pharaohnic tradition!

In Thailand, the king still represents the minimum level of national consensus for unity. The military tried its best not to involve and politically damage the monarch. Even the strongest supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin would not criticize the king's decision. The silent majority of Thais still support him as the nation's symbol, one which modern Egyptians do not have.

Despite all the criticisms against it, the system of monarchy still has a value in the 21st century: not for the king or queen to rule, but to function as a symbol of national unity under a democratic constitution in developing countries. Thailand is no exception. As long as the monarch is wise enough to represent the goodness of a nation, the country seems to be stable.

There are other examples in the Middle East and North Africa including Jordan and Morocco. Finally, there is one more important case in Asia, which is, of course, the monarchy of Japan. The silent majority of Japanese still adore and respect the Emperor and this is another reason why Japan continues to represent the stability of East Asia.