Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Politics of International Sanctions: The 2014 Coup in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Politics of International Sanctions: The 2014 Coup in Thailand

Article excerpt

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.

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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. …

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