The military coup in Thailand last month is the 12th successful coup since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Counting attempted coups, it is the 19th.  So, why is this one significant?

The coup was accompanied by a level of suppression not seen since the military coups in the the 1970s, during the heyday of the Cold War when Thailand was an important partner in Washington’s anti-communist alliance in Asia. Unlike more recent coups, this time martial law was declared, political opposition leaders were detained, and so was a broad range of journalists, academics and activists. Several have gone into hiding. Persons opposing the new order will be tried in military courts. So-called reconciliation centres run by the military are being established to encourage the ‘red shirts’, as the supporters of the previous government call themselves, to rethink their position.  All public meetings of more than five persons are prohibited.

While coup supporters celebrate - some of them, dressed in military-style T-shirts, partied at expensive restaurants in Bangkok - a sense of fear and intimidation prevails among others. And the junta has given no sign of rapid return to civilian rule. ‘Give us time’, the army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha said when announcing that the junta would need at least 15 months to undertake necessary reforms. In this respect as well, the present coup resembles an earlier era of Cold War coups when the military ruled directly, or with only the thinnest of civilian veneers.

There are several reasons for this apparent throw-back to an earlier era of crude military intervention in Thai politics. In part, this is the behaviour of an institution that is scared. The military leadership knows fully well that the country has undergone fundamental structural social change since the 1970s. Democratic institutions and practices have taken root. Large segments of the population that previously ranked among the most poor and powerless have become political mobilized. These are above all the rural population in the North and Northeast, and the lower classes in Bangkok, many of them employed in the city’s vast informal sector. Their votes brought the controversial populist Thaksin Shinawatra to power in the elections in 2001 and 2005, and – when he went into exile after the military coup in 2006 – the party he had established again won a sweeping victory in 2011, now led by his sister.

The military is up against not only the forces released by the populist movement of Thaksin – buoyed by the very real improvements in health care and education that his regime brought – but also a broad swath of civil society and the intelligentsia that have developed as an adjunct to the fast-growing middle class, in itself a result of decades of rapid economic growth and development. While Thaksin is deeply controversial among them, democratic principles and associated freedoms are not.

Internationally the coup is likewise viewed as a regression to an earlier era and a departure from the path of political democracy that Thailand seemed to follow. The US government initially denounced the military seizure of power – explicitly using the term ‘coup’ – and called for rapid return to civilian, democratic rule. The EU did likewise.

Arrayed against this opposition, the military has reached for the tool it knows best - force and threats of force - to established compliance and order. But what prompted the military to seize power in the first place?

The immediate trigger was, of course, six months of demonstrations and unrest in Bangkok, orchestrated by the ‘old classes’ – the traditional economic and political elites and the minor aristocracy - in order to force out the elected government headed by Thaksin’s sister. The deeper agenda was to curtail democratic elections that had brought to power the populist tiger that Thaksin was riding. In this respect, the old classes and the military had shared interests.

Both nurtured a deep mistrust of ‘the people’, a mistrust framed by a blend of ideas that in their totality serve to justify a social order where an expanding and vigorous entrepreneurial elite co-exist with the traditional elites as long as the former does not threaten the latter (Thaksin’s mistake was to appear to cross that line). In this social order, guarded and represented at its apex by the King, social change is controlled and in an ideological sense guided by the Buddhist concept of ‘merit’. In this order, the king is King by virtue of his accumulated merit; in a vulgarized form, it suggests that powerful persons likewise have gained their position through merit. In an even more vulgarized and politicized form, it translates to the notion that poor farmers or workers without education can be manipulated by people without merit to upset the social order.

These are not idle musings of the traditional elites. The political agenda of the demonstrations during the past six months has been reforms to effectively limit the electoral, democratic process, initially through an appointed government and a new constitution that, for instance, constrains the power of an elected Lower House as against an appointed Upper House. Demonstrators have talked of a weighted voting system that favours the propertied, urban classes.

The authority of the King has been invoked by color – the demonstrators have wrapped themselves in yellow, the birthcolor of the King – and by slogans.    In his speeches to the nation, the King used to talk of order as a balance between two kinds of people: the good people (khon di) who have accumulated much merit, and bad people (khon mai di) who have not. Order and prosperity reign when khon di rule. In recent months the message has been aired on TV stations more frequently than before as a ticker-tape message between programs.

The military as an institution is deeply royalist (and also owns several TV stations).  In institutional terms, the military views the present ‘red shirt’ populists as a threat to the existing social order not only because they may lack merit. Rather, the red shirts appear to the military as a new version of the previous serious threat they combatted, namely the insurgency waged by the Communist Party of Thailand in the 1970s.

The junta now talks of  ‘unity and harmony’ in a way that, according to some analysts, provide the final pointer to why the military seized power and seems determined to retain it. The terms ‘unity and harmony’ were also used by Thai kings during the first part of the 20th century to rally support at a time when the monarchy was threatened. At the present time, Thailand faces a possible succession crisis. The King is old (86 years) and ailing; his son, the Crown Prince, is controversial and mercurial. Will the succession spark a deeper crisis that could jeopardize the institution of the monarchy as it functions today?

The Thai kings in the early 20th century who invoked ‘unity and harmony’ did so to defend the absolute monarchy. They lost out in 1932, when the country became a constitutional monarchy. Today, it seems the military has seized power under the banner of ‘unity and harmony’ to defend the constitutional monarchy. In the short term, they have won. In the longer run, the outcome is much less certain.

AS 31.5.2014