This post is the ninth post in the series ‘Thailand in Crisis’, covering the political history of Thailand in the 21st century. You can see the rest of the project here.
By May 2014, Thailand was essentially anarchic. Yingluck Shinawatra had been removed from office by the courts and was replaced by a relatively unknown cabinet minister, Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan. The PDRC protestors remained on the streets, but with no clear road ahead. It was political stalemate.
Eyes slowly turned towards that traditional kingmaker of Thai politics – the military. Army commander Prayut Chan-o-cha had remained on the sidelines since the protests started, insisting that the military would not intervene. On May 20th, however, Prayut surprised the country by appearing on television to announce that he was instituting martial law throughout the country. He assured the nation that this was not a coup; the military was simply stepping in to maintain peace and order throughout the country. News outlets dubbed it the ‘non-coup’. A Pheu Thai minister admitted that the government had not been consulted about the move, but said there was “no cause for panic”.
Prayut invited all the parties to the political conflict to come together for political negotiations, saying “We ask all sides to come and talk to find a way out for the country”. The meetings were held at the Thai Army Club and were attended by a large group of political leaders, including Yingluck, Abhisit and Suthep. The participants could not reach an agreement, with the government insisting that it would be illegal for a caretaker administration to resign, while the PDRC disagreed.
On May 22, after two days of talks, Prayut asked to confirm if the government would not resign. The Pheu Thai delegates said they would not. Prayut stood up and announced simply: “I’m sorry, but I will have to seize power”. Abhisit turned around to tell the stunned government officials, “I told you so”. A minister reportedly yelled back, “What use is it to tell us that now?”
Immediately, Prayut launched a military coup. On television, flanked by all of Thailand’s military commanders, he proclaimed the suspension of the 2007 constitution and the creation of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) with himself as chief.
The 2014 military coup initially seemed like a routine coup in Thailand: ripping up the constitution, closing of television channels, curfews and tanks on the streets. However, it would soon prove much different. The 1991 and 2006 coups had been relatively brief affairs, with the generals soon stepping aside for credible interim civilian governments, the speedy drafting of a new constitution and a relatively quick return to democracy. Not this time. Prayut, disregarding the need for appearances, did not see the need for a new prime minister or cabinet for months; eventually, he appointed himself as prime minister. At a press conference after his inauguration, the new premier stormed out after being asked a question about when the election would be held, to which he had responded “No deadline!”. Prayut would delay elections multiple times in his tenure.
The junta tried to use a mix of sticks and carrots to simultaneously appease and scare the population. Prayut announced that he was “returning happiness to the people”, wrote a ballad that was played every day on TV and held army events in Bangkok with concerts and pretties dressed in skimpy khaki uniforms. On the other hand, even mild dissent was squashed to an extent unseen since Thailand’s authoritarian governments in the mid-20th century. Critics were summoned for ‘attitude adjustment’ in military bases, protests were banned, and students holding up the three-finger salute from the ‘Hunger Games’ or reading the novel 1984 in groups were arrested or told to stop. In an interim constitution, a notorious ‘Section 44’ granted Prayut with absolute power to do whatever he liked.
On the surface, the junta was a one-man show with Prayut dominating the airwaves, writing songs, gruffly making threatening jokes to reporters and hosting a one-hour prime-time talk show on Friday nights. It became clear, however, that Prayut was the frontman of a ruling triumvirate with himself and former army commanders Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paochinda. The cabinet, on the other hand, was dominated by retired generals, and an interim parliament was handpicked by the NCPO.
But to what end was this temporary military domination of Thai politics? Certainly, the 2006 coup – which some referred to as “a waste” in that it completely failed to eradicate the ‘Thaksin regime’ – loomed large in the generals’ minds. The generals proclaimed the need to eradicate corruption and populism, and the best way to achieve this was that classic Thai solution of drafting a new constitution. A Constitution Drafting Committee was formed, chaired by the leading legal expert Bowornsak Uwanno who had played a large role in creating the liberal 1997 constitution. The committee duly produced a new draft constitution that had a strong bent towards morality and ethics, creating mechanisms such as a National Morals Assembly that would scrutinize the ethical behavior of politicians. The ‘people’ were to be upgraded to ‘citizens’ with responsibilities in the governance of the Thai state. The draft, however, was rejected by the military-appointed parliament; it was, perhaps, not what the coup-makers meant when they talked about reform. It was, in sum, a move towards a ‘controlled democracy’.
Instead, the military government formed a new Constitution Drafting Committee under Meechai Ruchupan, another legal expert who had served past military governments and was a known critic of the 1997 constitution. The new draft that Meechai created included a new mixed-member majoritarian system, which simulations later conducted by political pundits showed would lead to reduced parliamentary gains by the Pheu Thai party and benefit medium-sized parties. The Senate was to be completely appointed, and would have a role in electing the prime minister. An outsider non-MP prime minister could be appointed. More strikingly, a 20-year national strategy would be drafted by the military and the constitution would include provisions permitting the impeachment of any future elected government that failed to follow the plan, thus guaranteeing military domination of Thai politics for two decades. A referendum on the new draft constitution was called for August 7, 2016. The junta refused to permit campaigning against the constitution, while Prayut himself actively endorsed it. Under these circumstances, the constitution was approved by a 61% vote, with most pro-Thaksin provinces voting against.
A coup, a new constitution, a pledge to end corruption and populism, and an eventual return to democracy. Was the 2014 coup the end of an era and a new one? Or was it simply a re-run of an episode Thailand has long grown tired of, that of unending political polarization, street-colored protests, turmoil and military intervention? Only time can tell.