On the 22nd of May the Thai military under General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power and deposed the remnants of a pro-Thaksin government. The opposition’s ‘victory’ is finally here, but the future of the country remains as perilous as ever.
In an army compound where talks on how to resolve the bitter and protracted crisis were being held, Thailand’s top political leaders failed to reach a solution. This was not surprising, for it has been made clear long ago that neither side is willing to compromise. Representatives of the cabinet continued to insist that it was prohibited by the constitution to resign (despite the fact that the very idea of a law that makes resignation impossible is ridiculous). Chief of the military General Prayuth was chairing the talks, probably could see there would be no solution.
Reportedly, the general asked the caretaker Justice Minister, who was there as a cabinet representative: “The government insists it will not resign- is this correct?”
“At this moment, no member of the cabinet will not resign.” answered the Justice Minister.
“If so, from this moment on, I decide to seize power“, General Prayuth replied calmly.
He subsequently went on television to announce the military coup and all the leaders in the compound were detained at once; troops streamed in to close off the compound and whisked away all the political leaders to unknown locations, to the surprise of journalists who had been waiting for the negotiation results. TV channels were immediately closed down and started playing live announcements from the newly formed National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC)- a military junta now in charge of running the country. General Prayuth ordered the suspension of the constitution, relieved all caretaker ministers of their duties, imposed a curfew throughout the entire country and ordered political leaders not yet detained to report to the army at their base in northern Bangkok.
Indeed, it was a very dramatic and swift coup. It is worth examining how and why it happened, and also what lies for the country in the near future.
Well known for his irascibility and characteristic bluntness, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is the man behind the coup. This was not the only coup he has been a part of, however; the general was also a participant of the 2006 coup d’état that forced Thaksin Shinawatra out of power, and he also helped to quell the Red Shirt riots that broke out in Bangkok in 2010. While the general is thought to be vehemently against the Thaksin regime, the election of Yingluck Shinawatra to the post of Prime Minister while he was army chief made things difficult. The general seemed to have attempted to portray himself in a neutral position, and the Pheu Thai party tried to obtain support from the military. Many in Thailand jeered at what they thought was the army chief’s switch of sides.
But when protests broke out late last year, General Prayuth’s position of neutrality became harder and harder to keep. It is difficult to be jealous of what had been the general’s task over the past seven months. The military had come under increasing pressure to ‘choose sides’; Suthep Thaugsuban spoke often in his nightly speeches about the need for the military to come stand by the people. Many demanded the military launch a coup.
General Prayuth tried to position the military in a neutral manner officially, but many observers noticed the covert support the military gave to the protesters. When clashes broke out between the police and NSPRT protesters (the police are, unlike the military, well known to be much more aligned with Thaksin), the military was seen giving aid to the protesters. Checkpoints were also set up on General Prayuth’s command around the protest sites in order to ensure the safety of the protesters. When Yingluck cried that these checkpoints would scare away tourists, the general famously began decorating them with flowers but refused to take them down.
The media often bombarded General Prayuth with questions about a possible military coup. The answer that he gave varied from occasion to occasion, but interestingly he sometimes said that “I will not rule out a military coup”. Another interesting fact is the army began to maneuver increasingly often, bringing in troops and equipment from the provinces into Bangkok for ‘training’.
With the benefit of hindsight, a coup was clear on the way.
Prelude to the Coup
The PDRC and the UDD seemed ever more poised to clash; this would certainly have led the country to civil war. Suthep’s tactics became increasingly forceful as he declared that he would lead the protesters to seize power ‘by themselves’; all the protesters were frustrated that the Senate, which they had previously placed their hopes on, still could not appoint an interim Prime Minister to head reforms.
The military’s move came after more bloodshed happened when a drive-by shooting happened near the antigovernment protest sites along Government House. “I will not allow Thailand to disintegrate into another Egypt or Ukraine”, General Prayuth stated angirly as he imposed martial law throughout the entire kingdom- without consulting the Pheu Thai civilian government. Soldiers were put in checkpoints around Bangkok, and media censorship began. Meanwhile, the military patiently insisted that ‘this is not a coup’; it was probably the most public prelude to a coup ever.
Some had believed the army’s promise that the imposition of martial law would not turn into a coup. At first I myself was skeptical, but after a day with no major action, many believed they have found the army’s strategy. Imposing martial law would allow peace and order throughout the country, and that would let the Senate work towards appointing a new cabinet in peace. Surely that would be the military’s strategy? Would they risk sanctions and international condemnation and go for a coup?
A Coup, Masterfully Executed
It turned out that martial law probably allowed for one masterfully executed coup. Now, there are no clear explanations from the military about what happened, and all of this is my own analysis:
- The imposition of martial law was a final warning to the government. Effectively, it was the military trying to force acting caretaker Prime Minister Niwatthamrong to resign on his own, along with the entire cabinet. The fact that the government was not consulted before the move was a show of force from the military about where the power truly lies.
- Martial law allowed there to at least be a show of negotiation by the civilian leaders before the military moved. Before the imposition of martial law, neither side was willing to even come and negotiate, therefore obviously there would be no solution. Once the military ordered that leaders must come, this allowed negotiations to happen- which everyone knew was bound to fail. Therefore, the military can justify that there was truly no other solution than a coup.
- This gave the military more time to prepare for the coup itself. Once the negotiations failed, the military could immediately announce the seizure of state power as it had already put all the troops in key positions and the media was already under the army’s control. There would be no time for a response from any pro-government protesters.
- Finally, the holding of negotiations in the army club meant that all the political leaders would be in one place when the coup happened. There would be no mad rush to go and detain major protest leaders or government ministers as everyone was already sitting inside the army club itself. All the army had to do was announce the coup and detain everyone.
The coup was swift and surprising. The army met no resistance, with the only clashes happening when troops forcibly broke down the UDD rally on Aksa road in northern Bangkok.
As I sit on my desk writing this piece, I hear the playing of patriotic songs from the TV. None of the Thai TV channels are now on air, and access to international channels has even been blocked. Even Disney isn’t viewable. Every once in a while, the army releases a press statement, whether it be explanations of the curfew or orders for key figures to report in to the military. The coup was a success for the military.
The Opposition’s Victory
The PDRC protesters were not immediately jubilant of the news of the coup. Yes, it was exactly what many had been pleading the military to do, and yes, it finally accomplished what seven months of protests could not: the removal of the Pheu Thai government. In his
brief speech to the nation when announcing the coup, General Prayuth had even mentioned that the task ahead for him is ‘reform of political institutions’. Reform before elections- this has always been the PDRC’s mantra. But the coup had been all too sudden, and the PDRC like the UDD, were also asked to disperse. It was the end of a over two hundred days of protests; many of the protesters had been out in the PDRC camp since November last year. In addition, Suthep, the adored leader of the protests, was still detained.
It was not the ‘people’s revolution’ that many had hoped for. But it must also be remembered that the PDRC would not have won alone. Suthep was losing face by mid-May when his gamble on using the Senate to appoint a Prime Minister yielded no progress. And it must also be remembered that without the protests, it is doubtful that the situation would have escalated enough to justify a coup.
This leads to a more important question, however. Was the coup justified?
Was the Coup Justified?
The coup, as was to be expected, led to the pouring of international condemnation. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, declared that “There is no justification for this military coup.” Really, though? Was the coup totally unjustified?
It must be remembered that the prospect of civil war was truly coming closer and closer. For all the condemnation of the military coup, I doubt that foreign governments truly know what was going on. The PDRC and UDD were bound to clash, and many had already lost their lives due to this political conflict. The police force was a biased, impartial unit and the government-run CAPO was also notoriously useless at keeping peace. They would not have been able to control the situation. Would John Kerry have preferred the prospect of civil war restored, rather than have a coup that would at least ensure peace and order for the time being?
The government that was removed was also no other than the one that has been headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, later by Niwatthamrong Boongsongpaisan: a corrupted cabinet full of Thaksin Shinawatra’s cronies, working to serve not the national interest but Thaksin’s. I have detailed this government’s many failings in this post.
Certainly, human rights must be respected, and media censorship should be lifted as soon as the situation stabilizes. But the fact that many feel the coup is ‘totally unjustified’ makes me wonder if they have considered the alternative: a series of violent, bloody clashes in the heart of Bangkok that would have seen one side triumph over the other on top of the corpses of their own countrymen. The fact that General Prayuth risked international condemnation and his own reputation to prevent that from happening makes him deserving of applause.
Awaiting the Thaksin Response
General Prayuth himself has an immense task ahead of him. There was no mention of elections yet so far- the 2006 coup was followed by a year of military administration. If General Prayuth intends to complete ‘reforms’, perhaps an unelected interim government would do so for him. But this would surely face opposition from the Red Shirts.
Already, there are protests against the coup. Technically it’s still illegal to hold political gatherings of over five people, but a couple hundred had already gathered just a day after the coup to protest against it. This may be a small glimpse of what we can expect to be coming. And it is not just ordinary people that we must consider.
If the coup was the end of this conflict that has started since the turn of the century, then many would be satisfied. But everyone knows this is not the end. It cannot be the end, for surely Thaksin will not give up. This conflict, for all its numerous players, is still about Thaksin.
After the 2006 coup, Thaksin returned to power in the form of crony nominee Prime Ministers through election victories. It is doubtful this will happen again. If anything, the military will have learned its lesson from 2006: nothing but the complete rooting of Thaksin’s influence will do. There is no better chance for the military to do this than now. But Thaksin has another card to play, one that he used to great effect in 2009 and 2010: the UDD Red Shirts. Another massive riot in the heart of Bangkok: would this be able to force the generals’ hands and turn the game back in his favor?
I am not an experienced political analyst. I do not know how Thaksin will respond and it is difficult for anyone to guess. But this conflict is far from over. General Prayuth has made his move. Thaksin’s comes next. What he does will determine how this conflict will turn out.
I know I end my posts with this a lot, but it’s the only thing we can do: hope for the best.