The generals behind Thailand’s latest coup, a well-planned seizure of power, have declared an ambitious agenda to fix the political system, dissolve conflict and “bring back happiness”. The steps they are taking: Closing down protest, pressuring academics and controlling the media may not deliver the results they are looking for.
Last month’s coup is markedly different from the 2006 army power grab that ousted billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That coup provided a clear plan for restoring civilian rule and a timetable for elections. This time around army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta have refused to commit themselves. They claim “the political system has to be reformed before a new election can take place”, suggesting that it may take 15 months if things run smoothly, or maybe much longer, before new elections can be held.
In the meantime, the Thai junta have set about consolidating their power, ruling by decree and suppressing even the most innocuous and silent forms of dissent. A gathering of five or more people has been declared illegal. Anyone who defies their decrees will be tried by military court-martial. With the scrapping of the constitution and the dissolution of parliament, the military’s power over policy-making and the judiciary is absolute.
The junta’s message to the public seems to be don’t worry about the abrogation of human rights, freedom of assembly and the clampdown on the media. The military’s public relations and social psychology unit has unleashed a series of free concerts and distributed free tickets to a stirring epic film that glorifies the victories of King Naresuan of Siam (1590-1605). The concerts have also featured songs lauding the the army for saving the nation from the abyss and “bringing back happiness”.
Beyond the entertainment the message is clear: Political divisions and debates have to be dissolved. The Thai people have to be united by ultra-nationalistic fervour and reverence for the monarchy.
Perhaps the clincher for winning over the masses was the junta’s directive to ensure all World Cup matches would be shown free on terrestrial Thai TV channels, at the cost of 427 million baht, or £7.68 million, skimmed from another budget.
All this has combined to garner support from people in Bangkok and beyond, whose lives had been disrupted by months of anti-government rallies, blocked traffic and political deadlock.
There is a common theme in both coups 2006 and 2014 — the objective of disrupting and dislodging the electoral domination of the Shinawatra-led political parties and the “red shirt” supporters, that since 2001 have consistently won at the ballot box.
Background to the coup
The country’s fragile democracy had been battered and paralysed by months of raucous anti-government demonstrations, including the occupation of government ministries led by die-hard monarchists known as “yellow shirts”. They were opposed to a government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in exile in Dubai.
Attempts to settle the conflict by holding an election in February 2014, were stymied by anti-government protesters blocking the way to many voting stations in Bangkok and the south. The election was later annulled by the courts, leaving the country in a state of political impasse.
Month after month, the Thai military chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had fended off the media with assurances that there would be no coup because “a coup is not the solution”.
But soon after, on 20 May, the army declared martial law, stressing that it was not really a coup. On 21 May, the army chief declared “martial law is not the same as a coup”. Then on 22 May, martial law underwent a minor mutation leading to full seizure of power. Overnight, the action becaime a fully-fledged coup under the command of the NCPO — the National Committee for Peace and Order. Despite appearances and General Prayuth’s misleading statements, according to a reliable business source in close contact with the generals, it had all been planned a long time ago. This has now been confirmed by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party politician turned yellow shirt. The military have denied it.
Thailand is no stranger to coups. Tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in 2006. At the election that followed his sister Yingluck Shinatra won a landslide victory, and her government suffered the same fate in 2014. This is the 12th coup since 1932 and the end of absolute monarchy.
The current hard-line military regime has set about rooting out all anti-coup opposition — both red shirt, and a politically liberal constituency, based around groups of intellectuals, writers and academics.
The Thai Human Rights Alliance has reported that 470 people have been detained for questioning for 7 days or more, after being summoned to appear before the generals. This included not only politicians and red shirt leaders but also human rights lawyers, academics, journalists and writers. Most have been released after being pressured to sign a declaration that they would not engage in any anti-coup activity.
Universities have been warned against holding political forums. Inside schools, a decree has banned any criticism of the coup. NCPO is also considering rewriting history books to add patriotic fervour to classroom study.
Censorship of the internet was already extensive before the coup. It has reached new heights under the junta, with an attempt to close down Facebook. However it suddenly came back online after an hour with the military engaging in frantic denials.
Following the Thai junta taking control over TV, radio and print media, the only remaining source of independent information and reports from Thai reporters can be found on the web. Blocking Facebook pages is part of a long-term strategy to rival the success of Burmese counterparts in controlling internet gateways. Anyone who clicks “like” on an anti-coup comment on the web has, according to the NCPO, committed a criminal offence.
The junta tries to extend its grip overseas
Army chief General Prayuth has briefed 23 Thai ambassadors to keep a close watch for any anti-coup protests abroad. Any “inappropriate comments” about the Thai monarchy should be reported and could be prosecuted under Thailand’s notorious “lese majeste” law. This controversial law bans any public debate of the monarchy and has been widely used to discredit political opposition.
In Thailand the military’s first allegiance is to the royal family. The politics of the coup is viewed by many as part of a broader plan to ensure that the succession that follows the death of ailing 86 year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej will be managed by a Thai parliament under the firm control of deeply committed monarchists, and not Thaksin’s red shirt camp.
All sides profess affection and loyalty to the king, but the wearing yellow indicates special allegiance to increasing the powers of the throne beyond the limits of a constitutional monarchy.
In late May, the Royal Thai Embassy in London tried to lobby the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and their Thai Society, to cancel a public panel discussion on 2 June, on the coup d’état. The event featured a panel of speakers including law academic Verapat Pariyawong, one of those summoned by the junta. Despite embassy pressure, the debate went ahead at SOAS.
In Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, the long arm of the military was more successful, blocking the screening of the film 1984, based on George Orwell’s classic novel. A Thai cineclub wanted to screen it at an art gallery with an anticipated audience of probably less than 30. As a result of pressure from an army colonel who contacted the gallery, it was cancelled.
Military newspeak and Orwellian times
Addressing the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, junta spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipakhe urged the media: “Please avoid using the word coup, because the context of what happened in Thailand is completely different. The only thing that happened in Thailand is the change of the administration of this country.” The colonel also instructed the media against using “junta”, saying: “One must never use that word, it sounds bad.”
He also declared: “I don’t like the word ‘detention’ as people were only invited to come.” However, about 50 people who declined the “invitation”, have been charged and will be tried by court martial.
The military have also said they wanted to end the country’s deeply entrenched political divisions by setting up reconciliation forums under ISOC (Internal Security Operations Command), a body established in 1966 to counter the armed communist rebellion.
ISOC spokesman Ban hot Pompeian said “it’s time for Thais to stop dwelling on the past”. Addressing primarily red shirt voters in the north and north east, he said they “should forget everything that happened before 22 May”.
In George Orwell‘s 1984, the importance of forgetting the past is all part of a totalitarian design to exert thought control and acceptance of a new reality. “Thailand in 2014 is George Orwell’s 1984,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told Time magazine.
David Steckfuss an expert on northern Thailand, who lectures at Khon Kaen University, argues there are many things that “it would be hard for them [red shirts] to forget”, mentioning specifically the military crackdown on red shirt supporters in Bangkok in 2010, which resulted in 90 people killed. The military fired live ammunition in order to disperse a mass protest that had blocked central Bangkok for over two months.
Steckfuss argues that reconciliation based on the barrel of a gun is not going to work. Those red shirt activists and the voters in northern Thailand do not view the junta as honest brokers between the two political sides, but clearly aligned with one side comprising of the Bangkok elite, the yellow shirt monarchists and the royal palace, he said.
Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies expert who heads the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University, commented that General Prayuth’s actions during anti-government demonstrations were “biased towards the anti-government side, protecting and promoting them under the guise of the military being ‘neutral'”.
Dark days ahead
Thailand’s political history has been riddled by coups, usually involving a semi-feudal elite at loggerheads with both the new capitalism represented by Thaksin Shinawatra and his telecom empire, and with the recent sense of empowerment by the voters of north and north-east Thailand.
Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa points out: “Unfortunately, the military hasn’t learned much from their previous mistakes; that is, every coup thus far has been a fundamental failure, and the military must take full responsibility for this.”
If the country is to emerge from this crisis, Sivaraksa argues the elite and the military have to start respecting the poor who vote for red shirt parties and are starting to assert their political rights.
“Many red shirts are not pawns of Thaksin Shinawatra. They have bravely struggled for freedom from domination by the ‘ammarts'”, Sivaraksa said, referring to the traditional elite closely linked to the judiciary and the royal palace.
There is a chance that the military’s reform of the Thai system, and their apparent preference for a more limited or guided democracy will only be welcomed by the yellow shirt royalists, and rejected by any election based on one man one vote.
If there is to be a credible reform process, Dr Lee Jones of Queen Mary London University says: “The only way forward is a new social contract that distributes power and resources more equitably. We get that by talking and negotiating, not from the barrel of a gun.”