After the Putsch Come the Punches

Why Thailand’s coup is destined to fail.

It's not a question if the Thai coup will go wrong; it's a question of when, and how badly. You might think the Royal Thai Army would be good at quelling unrest by now -- Thailand has been in permanent political crisis since the 2005 protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and politically unstable for most of the 20th century. But like the last coup in September 2006, the military's May 22 seizure of power in a bloodless coup will be disastrous.

At the core of Thailand's problems is a huge gulf between supporters of Thaksin -- who was ousted in the 2006 coup and whose sister Yingluck was prime minister from 2011 until May -- and those who vigorously oppose the Shinawatra clan. (Pro-Thaksin forces comprise a majority in Thailand but a minority among the Bangkok elite and the country's middle class.)

The military claimed it needed to avert potential violence and bring together two warring factions that had paralyzed the country's government since November. Although coups are going out of style in much of the world, the Thais still know how to stage them brilliantly: take over the TV stations, earn praise for rescuing the nation from disorder, and receive instant global media attention. Indeed, for the first time in several months, Bangkok is largely clear of street protests -- creating the impression of a return to normalcy.

That illusion, however, will not last. For better or worse, Thais have the world's lowest political boredom threshold. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has alternated between spells of parliamentary rule and periods of military dictatorship; electoral politics have been gaining ground since the late 1970s, but the monarchical network has consistently exercised behind-the-scenes power in shaping governing regimes. Since the 1991 coup, there have been no less than 13 prime ministers (not including several acting ones), three military coups, 10 general elections, four constitutions (not counting the interim ones), and six rounds of massive street protests.

Thailand's military deserves much of the blame. Seizing power is glamorous and exciting -- the dream of every young cadet who graduates from Thailand's Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, the Army's officer training academy. But after the putsch come the punches: the daily hard knocks of running a country and facing continual criticism. Far from being smiling, passive, and deferential to authority (like the tourism authority would have you believe), Thailand's 69 million people are some of the most politicized and polarized people on the planet. The notion that they are going to embrace peace and orderliness on the instructions of a few guys in uniform is a joke. Thais like the rhetoric of order and enjoy the idea of a strong leader, but the novelty wears off once they have had a few weeks of stiff military paternalism. Already, Thais are finding novel ways to demonstrate displeasure with their new rulers.

Unfortunately, the military does not seem to understand this. Thai generals experience little criticism during their professional lives. Socialized into military culture from the day they enter pre-cadet school at age 15, they can look forward to a 45-year career in the Army. Thailand has one of the world's largest contingents of serving generals -- around 1,500 across the three services, from a total military personnel of just over 300,000. Many of them have literally nothing to do except dabble in business and meddle in politics. Surrounded by yes men for most of their lives, they are ill-equipped to run real businesses or assume ministerial, political, or other public offices. The Thai Army is a uniformed bureaucracy that has not fought a real war since playing a supporting role to the Americans in Vietnam.

The commander of the Royal Thai Army (in practice senior to the notionally higher-ranking supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces) can enjoy pronouncing loftily on the foibles of elected politicians and setting himself up as a moral arbiter. Back in December, before the armed government takeover, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha declared that the military will uphold a balanced stance that doesn't erode its goal of fostering love and unity among Thais, according to the Bangkok Post. He added, "Soldiers will always belong to the nation, religion, and the people." After a coup, however, the Army chief's moral authority and pontification capacity quickly wanes, as the professed goal of encouraging love and unity grows more elusive.

Immediately after seizing power, Prayuth appointed himself the interim prime minister, thereby making himself a lightning rod for all complaints. If he's wise, he'll select a civilian to fill those shoes as soon as possible. The 1991 coup group smartly picked respected former ambassador to the United States and royal confidant Anand Panyarachun to handle all the ensuing grief. Anand was able to win over the international community and take the pressure off the generals -- at least for a while.

However, by contrast, the 2006 coup plotters chose badly, handing power to a former Army chief, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who soon acquired a well-deserved reputation for dithering and lack of focus. The result was a rapid decline in the coup's popularity. Likewise, today Prayuth is looking dangerously exposed, trying to front the whole coup himself rather than presenting it as a team effort.

In 1991, the coup-makers were initially viewed as dashing, even romantic figures, especially Supreme Commander Sunthorn Kongsompong, a smooth-talking cavalry officer who played well on TV. Their post-coup honeymoon period lasted for around four months, until it became increasingly obvious that his charmless colleague, Army chief Suchinda Kraprayoon, was eyeing a key role for himself in the post-electoral order. When Suchinda elbowed his way into the premiership in 1992, he triggered mass protests, shootings, and a royal intervention -- King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned both Suchinda and the main protest leader for a dressing-down -- that helped force him out of office. Suchinda remains widely reviled, though his missteps helped pave the way for a progressive "people's constitution" in 1997.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, probably the most likable Army commander of the past few decades, staged the 2006 coup. But even he soon realized that he could never parlay the coup into a bid for longer-term political office and that eradicating Thaksin's influence and remarkably resilient voter support was impossible. Initially popular with many Bangkokians, Sonthi's nice-guy coup slowly degenerated into a catalog of popular frustrations and disappointments, and pro-Thaksin parties staged a successful comeback in the subsequent election.

A coup turns the tables on top generals in ways they do not enjoy. Soon their misery begins to infect the wider population, which starts to yearn again for political leaders the people can more easily eject from office. Thai coup-makers now in power would do best to scale back their own visibility, appoint a civilian prime minister and cabinet to take pressure off the junta, and plan for a speedy departure.

Prayuth shows no sign so far that he grasps any of this. He may even believe that he should stay prime minister. If so, he should think again; the same people who are right now celebrating his bold seizure of power will very soon want to see the back of him.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


The Three-State Solution

The peace process has failed again, and it's time for Israel's neighbors to shoulder the burden of dealing with the Palestinians.

Yet another attempt to end the century-long conflict between the Palestinians and the Zionist movement has come to an end. Once again, Israel's willingness to go the extra mile over the past nine months has been met with an unwillingness to budge by the Palestinians. Instead of putting forth a genuine effort to resolve this conflict, the Palestinians continuously issued new demands in return for the dubious concession of merely entering the negotiating room. They then essentially sabotaged U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's valiant efforts by entering a pact to form a new government with the terrorists of Hamas -- instead of taking a chance on a peace accord with Israel.

Now is the time to take advantage of this latest failure and shift the paradigm of the conflict in a whole new direction. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the onus to resolve the plight of the Palestinians has fallen on Israel. We have engaged in umpteen rounds of negotiations with Palestinian representatives, negotiations that have not moved the two sides any closer to peaceful coexistence. In addition to direct negotiations, Israel also enacted a costly unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and attempted many times to use third-party negotiators to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. These attempts were also met with failure.

There is no reason that Israel alone should shoulder this burden. Going forward, Jordan must become a full partner in negotiating the final status of the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, a regional agreement must be reached with Egypt recognizing the existing political reality since Israel completely withdrew all military and civilian installations from the Gaza Strip. There is no reason that, in the future, a resident of Ramallah should have to travel to Europe via Israel's Ben Gurion Airport instead of flying out of Amman, or that Gaza's electricity should be supplied by a power station in the Israeli city of Ashkelon instead of Egypt's Rafah.

The relationships between the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors are strong and deep. The ties between the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria and the Jordanians are well documented. Similarly, the Arab residents of Gaza have always enjoyed a close relationship with Egypt. It is through Egypt that these Palestinians have historically furthered their education and conducted business with the international community.

Such an initiative would not be a return to the old "Jordan is Palestine" plan of earlier decades. We have no intention of forcing unwanted change on the Jordanian kingdom. We value our relationship with the Jordanian and Egyptian governments, and we work very closely with them on a variety of matters of mutual concern in our tumultuous region. The ties between our countries are so strong that we have been able to successfully weather breakdowns in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the regional instability of the Arab Spring, and even uncomfortable incidents such as the killing of a Jordanian judge at a border crossing this year.

Instead, it should be up to the Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians -- in agreement with Israel -- to determine the final configuration of their joint entities. A number of possibilities exist that could allow all sides to maintain their own national identities while creating an umbrella framework that safeguards the interests of all parties involved.

It would be unwise at this point to publicly project the desired result of such negotiations. History has shown us that the most successful negotiations in our region occurred when the public was not aware in real time of the topics being discussed. Nevertheless, there are three main parameters that Israel insist on in such a process.

First, Israel must be a full partner in this dialogue. While it should be up to the Jordanians and Egyptians to formulate the exact nature of their relationship with the Palestinians, Israel has too many interests at play to be excluded from the negotiating room. Whether it's regarding water and energy resources or general economic development, Israel's involvement will serve not only our interests but has the potential to greatly benefit our regional neighbors as well.

Second, whatever agreement is reached regarding the political entity to be established in Judea and Samaria, it must be clear from the outset that any new entity that is created in the region between the Jordan River and Mediterranean will remain completely demilitarized. This includes, of course, the Gaza Strip, which now serves as a base for unending missile attacks on Israeli population centers. The security forces taxed with fighting terrorism and ensuring general law and order should be robust, but the number of security personnel and arms in this region must be closely monitored. We cannot allow a return in Judea and Samaria to the days of the Second Intifada, when Palestinian security officials turned against us -- using the weapons we donated to them to attack our citizens.

Finally, while the mechanisms governing the flow of goods and populations across the Jordan River will be decided by the Palestinians and Jordanians, the Jordan Valley must remain fully under Israeli control -- and Israeli security forces will need to retain an active presence at all border crossings. We cannot repeat the mistake of the Gaza disengagement, in which Israel left the border between Gaza and Egypt only to see it become the main smuggling route for missiles aimed our cities. Such a mistake this time would not only result in more rocket fire at Israeli population centers, but would also place strategic targets -- like our only international airport -- under direct threat.

After 20 years of failed attempts at reaching a two-state solution, now is the time to try something new. The Arab residents of Judea and Samaria may become full citizens of Jordan and Egypt, with voting rights, or instead the Jordanians and Egyptians may decide to set up some sort of loose confederations with the Palestinians. Either way, the Palestinians' political aspirations will be met via Jordan and Egypt, not through Israel.

I realize that many experts today make the claim that the two-state solution is the only option on the table if we want to ensure that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state. I do not accept this hypothesis. Our region is an extremely dynamic one: A few short years ago, none of the world's leading statesmen or academics predicted the turmoil that the Middle East would undergo. Old orders are dismantled and new realties appear on almost a daily basis. Even those who oppose my views now may very well realize this plan's merits in the not-too-distant future.

As an Israeli who has paid a personal price in this conflict and as a father who wants a better future for his children, I firmly believe that this outline for a regional peace agreement must be considered. History has shown that the path of negotiations has offered little of value, and this is unlikely to change. But with a sound strategy and careful diplomacy, this new model can succeed. And with that success, the generations-old hope for peaceful coexistence -- defined by safety and dignity for all the people -- will become a reality.

Photo by CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images