Talking about Thai politics is like declaring variables in programming. What Americans think is a global variable is, in the case of Thailand, a local one. Some Thail local variables:
1. The King was born and raised in the US. He did not want to be king, he wanted to be a doctor like his father was. He also wanted to be a musician (he played well enough to jam with Benny Goodman) and composer, and he's a world class photographer despite having lost an eye in a car accident in his teens. He has tried several times to bring democracy to Thailand during his 60-year reign. It's a constitutional monarchy, with similar powers to England, the difference is for 60 years he has done a lot more than cut ribbons and wave at the tourists.
2. The military is incredibly pro-US, has been since the end of WWII. The bases where the US bombed Cambodia and Vietnam from? Provided by the Thai military, near the Thai section of the Mekong River. Many if not most of the general staff are West Point grads, or have solid relations with their US counterparts. Like the US general staff, they are strong protectors of democracy,while at the same time being fiercely loyal to the King.
3. The Parliament was very much like our House of Representatives - a decisive majority belonged to the far right wing (a party whose name literally translates as "Thai loves Thai".) TRT. Since Thai can mean either the Thai people or Thailand, it's a very catchy title, and very very very much like the hard-boiled partisan Republicans we are cursed with.
4. Prime Minister Thaksin (sounds like "toxin"), made his billions founding and running Thailand's biggest cell phone company, which he sold when he became PM, as a ploy to make people think he was getting rid of a conflict of interest. He actually sold the shares to his wife, and other close relatives. In January, in another attempt to duck criticism, he had his his family sell their shares. First of all, he waited for the price to go up, and secondly he sold them to a branch of the Singapore government. The $2 billion sale put such a dent in the balance of trade, the Thai currency value went down. This caused a political furor, there was a vote of no confidence and he lost.
So with that background, the rest of the story. Thaksin called new elections. The Thai constitution says if a candidate for parliament is running unopposed, there needs to be a certain percentage of voters coming to the polls in that precinct before the election is valid. When there are opposition candidates, there is no such requirement. Thaksin and his party hired bogus candidates to be on the ballot in scores of provinces to get around this rule. The courts threw out the results and called for new elections, but the resources of one of Asia's 40 richest men and a Republican-like national party organization assured TRT would win a huge majority and Thaksin would be back in power. Though he had promised to step own in the interim, he did not.
To put this in perspective, TRT "won" 460 out of 500 seats in the fraudulent election. 1/3 of the voters boycotted the polls, which had something to do with it.
So, with a completely corrupt, power-hungry PM whose party had an unbreakable lock on government, democracy in Thailand became as big a sham as it is in the US. The difference is they have a military which has the balls to do something about it. Bear in mind that nobody would dare make a move without the King's permission. In 1973, the King went on TV and suggested people protest the government's dropping the rice and pig subsidies and a million people showed up the next day. He is even more loved today.
Thailand will have elections in a year or so. Hopefully by that time the acting government will have broken Thaksin's hold - he'll probably stay in exile - and the TRT party will be broken up enough so they don't have a strangle hold on Parliament.
Some history. When I was living in southern Thailand in 1976, I had come to Bangkok for a Peace Corps Volunteers rep meeting, and was on my way to Thammassat U, where the national museum has a display I wanted to see which debunks the book Anna and the King, the basis for The King and I. As I was walking through Yoawarat District (aka Chinatown), busloads of "village scouts" started rolling by, headed in the same direction. And busloads of vocational students. This would be like the KKK and the Ag college ROTC teaming up. They were out to get the liberal arts students at Thammassat who were protesting the corrupt government and the US (Vietnam was still a war, though the US was no longer officially in it).
As I passed a TV store, I saw tanks on the video screen, and pictures of vocational school students lynching Thammassat students on the lawn in front of the University. I decided to stay and watch on TV. Especially after seeing a bazooka fired at the U by a soldier.
Hundreds of students were killed, many machine gunned while they tried escaping by jumping into the river behind the campus (the Chao Prya is almost as wide as the Mississippi).
The soldiers chased away the Village Scouts and the vocational students, and while this was going on at the U. tanks had surrounded Parliament. What caused the coup was Parliament and the PM's inept non-handling of violent student protests.
When the smoke cleared, the top generals formed an administrative committee and started re-making the government. They threw out the corrupt/inept/old boy cronies of the PM and stocked the cabinet with people who actually knew what they were doing. What I remember hearing on the radio included:
The head of the ag university was made minister if agriculture
The head of the biggest teacher's college was made minister of education
A law school dean became justice minister, and the chief justice role went to someone similarly qualified.
And so on.
The committee changed heads several times, usually without any bloodshed, and eventually they re-established Parliament, and brought it up from rubber stamp to actual authority.
Thailand has a history of the politicians screwing up democracy, and the military, with the King's blessing, fixing it. I kind of wish we had that here.
I hope my facts are accurate. If you have first-hand knowledge to the contrary, leave a note here. Messages to this post will be screened, excpet for my friends' list.