Why you should believe the worst about Thailand’s coup

Everyone in Bangkok awoke Tuesday morning to the news that the  Royal Thai Army had declared martial law, including the censorship of certain news outlets. thailand

It’s not a coup, however, according to the claims of commander-in-chief Prayuth Chan-ocha (pictured above), who ordered the move, and who called for calm in a public announcement later in the day:

The army is determined to restore peace and order in our beloved country as quickly as possible. I request that people from all sides stop their movements so that all can quickly enter the process that will bring about a sustainable solution to the problems the nation is currently facing. Announcements will be made later on to provide details for the rules and regulations under martial law. I urge the public to stay calm and continue their daily activities and work normally. The army is determined to quickly ease the situation.

No one really knows what is happening right now in Thailand, but it’s a country with a history of coups and coup attempts. So the latest efforts of the creepily-named Peace and Order Maintaining Command (POMC) that Prayuth leads, on the basis of laws that undermine the rule of law and democracy in the name of military-imposed order, is ominous — even if Thai soldiers have so far taken a light footprint on the ground. 

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Prayuth, since assuming the commander-in-chief post in 2010, has generally been unenthusiastic about intervening in Thailand’s politics — he has previously relented from intervention, even during the tense days leading to February’s elections. Like most military officers, however, he’s no fan of the regime of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra who, until her court-ordered removal earlier this month, enjoyed a democratic mandate for government. Moreover, Prayuth is known as a hardliner within the military elite, and there’s no indication that he’s as neutral as he claims to be.

With the imposition of martial law, Thailand’s politics could quickly deteriorate. That’s because the Thai armed forces have a long reputation of favoring the opposition Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์).

Earlier this month, it seemed as if Thai affairs were back on track after February elections, boycotted by the opposition, delivered a hollow victory to Yingluck. Her administration had agreed with Thailand’s electoral commission for a new round of elections to be held on July 20, and the Democrats were even considering contesting them. 

It’s unclear why the Democrats, however, needed to boycott the February elections in the first place. After Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill in late 2013 that would have absolved top Democrat leaders as well as her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from criminal prosecution, both her own party and the opposition attacked the proposal. Supporters of the opposition (known as ‘yellow shirts’) gathered in protest, first to the aborted amnesty bill, then to Yingluck’s administration generally.

Yingluck responded by dissolving the Thai parliament and calling for snap elections — elections that the Democrats refused to contest. The July 20 vote was an attempt to take another bite at the electoral apple.

Since 2001, Thaksin and Yingluck have held a lock on Thailand’s electoral politics. They’ve commanded loyal support from their partisans (known as ‘red shirts’), and they can count on a sufficiently large number of votes from Thailand’s north and northeast that they have routinely routed the Democrats, whose supporters predominantly come from Bangkok, the Thai capital, and the south. The Democrats, traditionally, have been enthusiastic royalists, and they count the county’s business and military elite among their supporters. 

But they haven’t been able to win an election in over a decade, so it’s understandable why they would rather boycott than wage an election campaign. Suthep Thaugsuban, who served previously as deputy prime minister, has been leading the Bangkok-based protests against the Yingluck government. 

On May 7, however, Yingluck was removed from office after the Thai constitutional court ruled that she acted illegally in removing Thawil Pliensri, her national security chief, in 2011. The court case came in addition to impeachment charges against Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, which drastically and disastrously reduced Thai rice exports in the first two years of her administration.

The subsidies were designed to ameliorate the rise in food prices among the poorer northern Thai constituencies that support Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party (PTP, ‘For Thais’ Party, พรรคเพื่อไทย), and that have supported her and her brother since he first won power on a populist campaign in 2001. (Thaksin, too, was forced from power, and currently lives in exile in Dubai).

With Yingluck’s ouster, the governing PTP nominated deputy prime minister and commerce secretary Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan as acting prime minister. Given his role directing the controversial rice subsidy scheme, however, it was a somewhat pointed decision for the  PTP to foist him on the country. Nonetheless, his administration was otherwise supposed to be a caretaker government to guide Thailand to the July elections. 

It’s a safe bet that those elections will now be delayed — likely until 2015. Despite the military’s worries, the ensuing two weeks haven’t seen markedly more violence than the incredibly tense periods before and after the February 20 vote.

It’s hard to know how exactly to count Thailand’s military coups, but recent history is fairly clear — the army definitively ousted Thaksin in September 2006 and, after pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ won the 2007 elections, the army facilitated a soft transition of power to the Democrats in 2008, when Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister. The Democrats held power for over two years before the 2011 elections that propelled Thaksin’s sister Yingluck to power on a platform that included political reconciliation — and that for the first couple years of her government, it’s an approach that seemed to be working, despite the mishap with the rice subsidies.

It’s troubling that Prayuth, in the initial hours of Thailand’s new martial law, confirmed neither Niwatthamrong’s position as acting prime minister nor the date of the July 20 elections. Prayuth and the Thai army made its decision without so much as consulting the caretaker government, and it’s now sidelined freedom of assembly and press freedom. Militaries don’t usually do these things arbitrarily.

Prayuth’s actions in the past 24 hours make it harder to believe that the army’s imposition of martial law is merely about chasing both sides off the streets and imposing a period of calm. It looks more like the prelude to the kind of ‘technocratic’ military-guided rule that the Democrats have been demanding for months, knowing full well that they won’t be able to win a democratic mandate in open elections.

Photo credit to Chanat Katanyu  / Bangkok Post.

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