The latest military coup in Thailand could not have been any more inconveniently timed for the government of President B.S. Aquino 3rd. Thailand’s army seized power last Thursday, right in the middle of the World Economic Forum Southeast Asian meeting being held here in Manila.
Under the best of circumstances, events in Thailand would have been a huge distraction from whatever show the WEF’s host country was putting on; for the Philippines’ current ruling regime, desperately hoping it could cover up its major failings with triumphalist rhetoric for at least a couple days, Thailand’s coup only invited comparisons.
The possibility that “it could happen here” may or may not be any closer to reality, but the fact that people are even debating the question and making comparisons between
Thailand and the Philippines signifies a weakening of the Aquino Administration’s tenuous grip on power.
Comparisons are invidious, however, if they are not made cautiously. The political situations in the Philippines and in Thailand are hardly comparable at all, or at least they do not appear to be on the surface. In Thailand, the political impasse that provoked the army to step in is characterized as a conflict between the “urban elite” (for lack of a better term) and the unwashed provincial masses, the latter being represented by the parties of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his recently ousted younger sister Yingluck. In reality, the Shinawatras have an awful lot in common with the Aquino-Cojuangco clan—they are among the wealthiest and most influential families in their respective countries, part and parcel of the elite class they ostensibly stand against, only using the populist orientation as a means to build a power base.
A key difference in this country is that Aquino has had at least enough sense to follow advice not to make enemies of the elite class in the process and let them do what they like, which has had the not completely unwelcome side effect of putatively robust economic growth. A second key difference is the fundamentally different systems of Thailand and the Philippines. The ultimate loyalty of the Thai military is to the King, which (although it may come as a surprise to B.S. Aquino) is something the Philippines does not actually have. The Thai military is by design detached from temporal politics; that is good in the sense that there is a stabilizing influence that can be applied when necessary, but bad in the sense that it has made that application perhaps a little too easy for Thailand’s own good over the past 70 years.
By contrast, for the Philippine military to take the same kind of action, they must make a judgment whether circumstances demand they choose whether upholding their oath to defend the Constitution and the people of the Philippines outweighs their professional obligation to support their Commander-in-Chief. That is a tough decision, not one that is within anyone else’s purview to ask the Philippine armed forces to make, but that is not stopping a growing number of people from talking about it in the wake of events in Thailand.
That is a worrisome development for Aquino and his government, particularly if the situation in Thailand noticeably stabilizes under military rule. The initial reaction of equity and currency markets to the military takeover was not unexpected; an initial drop, followed by a bit of a rebound in reaction to the imposition of order on the political chaos that has been the prevailing environment in Thailand for the past six months. Over the weekend, Army Commander Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the leader of the junta, sent some positive signals by prioritizing attention to Thailand’s flagging economy. Because of political turmoil, falling tourism numbers, slower industrial growth, declining consumer spending, foreign capital flight, and major problems with key government spending initiatives, like the huge rice subsidy program, led to a first-quarter GDP decline of 0.6 percent.
Should the Thai military government arrest the economic slide and encourage at least small gains in investment and consumer spending, that is going to increase the pressure on the Aquino Administration, who is apparently unaware that the rest of the world does, in fact, realize that the boasts of rapid GDP growth, equity investment growth, and macroeconomic stability, are being made in an atmosphere clouded by an enormous corruption scandal, runaway utility prices, widespread poverty and unemployment, the apparent failure of the post-Haiyan recovery program, and major infrastructure dysfunctions. If Aquino or his selective memory-challenged Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima had bothered to visit a few hotel bars after hours while the WEF was in town, they’d probably realize just how big of a grain of salt their self-praising lectures were being taken with by most of delegates; if anything, the general impression of the Philippines is less “tiger economy” and more “paper tiger”—the numbers are there, but there is little reflection of them in the general state of the nation. If that were not the case, the Philippines’ foreign direct investment figures, for example, the real ones, not the ones the Department of Finance and Bangko Sentral like to publish, which include equity investments, probably would not have remained essentially flat throughout Aquino’s term (FDI actually declined by 5.4 percent between 2012 and 2013).
No matter where it happens, a military coup is the outcome of failure, and something no one should hope ever comes to pass in the Philippines. But when it happens in a country so close to home, and under circumstances that are far less severe than what is considered normal inside the happy bubble in which Aquino and Friends operate, it is an unavoidable topic and perhaps even a necessary one: Having not been motivated to accomplish anything for the greater good by any sort of sense of duty or desire for achievement, maybe the President can be moved to apply “less talk and more walk” by an instinct for self-preservation.