Few eyebrows were raised when the army seized power in Thailand last week. This was, after all, the 12th military coup since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, and the second in the past eight years. A society that, in comparison with most of its neighbours, has functioned well and succeeded economically, has been blighted by democracy's failure to take root. The Land of Smiles must now endure for an unknown period the National Council for Peace and Order, as the latest junta has named itself.

Its leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has warned that protests against the coup will not be tolerated, and summoned hundreds of people, including most of the former Government, to report to the authorities. Importantly, he has secured the endorsement of Thailand's ailing King, who called for "reconciliation among people". But exactly the same phrase had been used by the ousted Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, when her Phua Thai party won an overwhelming mandate in democratic elections in 2011.

Instead, her Government was bitterly resented by opponents, culminating in seven months of increasingly violent confrontations. These forces, representing the establishment elite based in Bangkok and the south, are the major winners from the coup. Intervention by the army was their aim. Now, they want a period of military rule to be the prelude to a new constitution that ensures their ironically named Democratic Party gains power not through universal suffrage but, most conceivably, through the appointment of a prime minister.

Thailand's record of democratic failure might suggest such a course could be justified in terms of sound governance. The view that this will serve the country best is certainly that of the army, a spokesman for which said that "democracy in Thailand has resulted in losses, which is definitely different from other countries and which is another detail we will clarify". But this view disregards the drastic changes in a modernising society that render a long-term retreat from democracy impossible.


The political landscape was changed forever by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of Yingluck, before he was unseated by a coup in 2006. He gathered strong backing from the poor of the rural north with policies that included cheap loans and improved healthcare and education. In the process, he paved the way for many of his supporters to graduate to the middle class. Such people now appreciate that they no longer need to doff their hats to the traditional elite in terms of economic and political power. This sentiment has meant that Phua Thai has won every election it has been allowed to contest.

Each time, however, it has also fallen victim to over-reach and corrupt practices that provided its opponents with grounds for creating unrest.

The validity of Phua Thai's election victory three years ago meant the international community immediately condemned the coup. The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, called for the quick restoration of civilian rule while suspending military aid. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, also appealed for a "prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule". At the moment, that appears a faint prospect.

This junta, however, will find it more difficult to impose its will than its predecessors. The clear majority of Thais may tolerate its rule for a short period in the interests of stability. That is certainly vital for the country's important tourism industry.

But at some point, popular democracy must triumph, and the army must finally recognise that it cannot simply dismiss any government not to its absolute liking.