Thai soldiers after martial law was imposed in Bangkok. Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
Thai soldiers after martial law was imposed in Bangkok. Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

It's time for Thailand to make a decision: the ballot or the bullet?

This is an easy question for democracies around the globe, but a bewilderingly hard one for a nation that's become less about the aspirations of Thais than those of Thaksin Shinawatra and the royalist elites hellbent on punishing him. Thailand has experienced at least three coups over the former prime minister who fled in 2008 to avoid jail on corruption charges. The first, in September 2006, ousted the billionaire from office. The second came May 7 when an "independent" court sacked Thaksin's prime-minister sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The latest arguably came today, as Thailand’s army assumed control over security nationwide on an emergency basis.

Thailand’s Troubled Democracy

"Martial law is not a coup," was the statement playing on an endless loop today on Channel 5, which is owned by the Thai army. It brings to mind the old witticism that you should never believe something until it's been officially denied. Of course this is another coup of sorts, and an oddly unnecessary one. The government is still in place, albeit weakened, and officials are working on holding another election.

Why now? What we saw today was an official declaration of war on the Thaksin family, damn the consequences. And those costs are growing exponentially. It's impossible to calculate how much damage this political crisis is doing to the economy and the poverty rate, but $15 billion is a good starting point. That's the Oxford Economics estimate for how much in domestic and foreign investment plans are being held up by the current stalemate -- a number that will be much larger six months to a year from now.

The army acted a day after data showed gross domestic product shrank 0.6 percent in the first three months of 2014. Thai production and tourism have been hurt exponentially by unrest that began in November against Yingluck’s government. But this action will only exacerbate the economic fallout as automakers, apparel companies and beach goers write off Thailand. The Philippines and Indonesia never looked better to multinational companies, who currently employ tens of thousands of Thais.

Look, Thaksin is a thug and the corruption case against him probably just scratched the surface of his 2001-2006 tenure. But Thais must own this simple fact: Thaksin is less the problem than the lack of governing institutions to deal with rogue leaders while in office and afterward.

There is no military solution to Thaksin, as the last eight years of political limbo prove. Every time soldiers step up to restore order in the short run, they set back Thai democracy in the long run. No matter how distasteful Thaksin and his ilk may be, the way to get rid of them is at the ballot box. In trying to destroy him in other ways, protesters are also steadily destroying the credibility of the courts, trampling on human rights, driving the nation to the verge of civil war and putting Thailand Inc. out of business. The only way out of this is free and fair elections and respect for the outcome. The same goes for the freedom to talk about anything, including, with all due respect, the role of the monarchy.

Rural Thais, represented by the "Red Shirts," revere Thaksin because of populist policies that pumped rivers of money into downtrodden communities. The urban "Yellow Shirts" in Bangkok loath Thaksin because he bent governing institutions to his own benefit at the expense of Thailand's democracy. The irony is that the Red Shirts are sacrificing their own economic interests in the name of their supposed savior, while the Yellow Shirts are pulling their own Thaksin-esque extrajudicial stunts.

All both sides are doing is seeing to it that bullets take precedence over votes. And in the process, Thais are losing more than economic growth. They are losing themselves, too.

To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net