by Riad Khan
Thailand’s army has seized power in a coup after months of political turmoil, just days after it surprised the government by declaring martial law. The military says it has taken control of the government and suspended the constitution in order to restore order and enact political reforms.
Thailand is currently in a political mess. The country has been in the grip of unrest for months, with the opposition saying the democratically elected government must go because it is corrupt. A number of people have been killed in the violence.
Observers say it is very hard to see how the problems can be resolved any time soon. The military junta said that its rule had been endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the monarch for nearly seven decades who has semi-divine status in the country. The military said that it would create a “genuine democracy” but gave no time frame for doing so. Amid small but daily protests against the coup, General Prayuth warned that the junta would become “more strict” if resistance continued.
An endorsement by the king, who is 86 years old and ailing, is crucial for the coup leaders. After Thailand’s previous coup, in 2006, the top general was photographed prostrating himself before the king.
King Bhumibol is above criticism both by tradition and law; insulting him, the queen or the crown prince is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment under a law that has been broadly interpreted by the authorities in recent years. The military said over the weekend that all lèse-majesté cases would now be heard in military courts.
The king has not been seen in public since the coup, and no member of the royal family has spoken publicly about the military takeover. The Royal Gazette, which lists official government decisions, carried the announcement of General Prayuth’s royal appointment.
“In order to maintain the peace and order of the nation and the reconciliation of the people, there shall be a royal command to officially endorse the appointment of General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the leader of the National Council for Peace and Order to administrate the country from here onward,” the announcement said.
General Prayuth, 60, was expected to retire as the head of the army later this year. But the coup is likely to prolong his career in the military, one of Thailand’s most powerful institutions and one that has a history of coups and suppression of popular movements. General Prayuth was the deputy head of the army when troops used assault weapons to violently crack down on protesters in the heart of Bangkok in 2010, leaving dozens of people dead and hundreds injured, including many bystanders.
A career soldier who is reported to be close to the palace, General Prayuth appeared reluctant to intervene in the political crisis. But he often masks his intentions with sarcastic and combative wit in public appearances.
Many Thailand watchers fear the army move could enrage government supporters. People who voted for what is still the elected government will feel extremely frustrated by what has happened. Most people are expecting the “red shirts”, the broad protest movement linked to the government, to rally and are extremely concerned about the possibility of confrontation.
There are also worries about the economy – Thailand’s currency the baht sank after the coup announcement. The stock exchange says it expects to keep operating as normal.
The government has been trying to organize a date for a new general election – those moves have been thrown into great uncertainty.
There is a deep political divide in Thailand – between mostly rural, often poor, supporters of Mr Thaksin, and an urban middle class who object to what they see as his continuing influence in Thai politics.
Arguably, military coups have become rare outside of Africa in the 21st century. So why does Thailand remain so prone to them? In the contemporary setting, perhaps the most prominent division is between the urban middle class and the rural population. The disparity between the two, in terms of income and cultural values, is at the heart of the current political instability in the country. For most of the past century, Thailand’s political life has been dominated by the urban middle class in capital Bangkok. The urban population is, for the most part, westernized in manners and outlook, educated and economically privileged. It is also largely secular and fiercely royalist, revering Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, as the ‘father of the nation’.
In the closing years of the 20th century, however, a new political movement emerged that challenged the power of the urban elite. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, appeared as a new force in national politics. It won the 2001 general election, which was widely seen as the most open and fair in Thai history up to that point. Brandishing a fierce populist, anti-establishment rhetoric, Thai Rak Thai was the first party in Thailand’s history to Q Quoteactively seek power by wooing voters, not among the country’s well-connected urban elite, but from the provinces. The party drew the vast majority of its support from the poorer segments of the population, especially from the largely neglected north of the country. These voters, who represent Thailand’s rural majority, are known as ‘red-shirts’.
In the meantime, the well-connected urban class, known informally as the ‘yellow-shirts’ prepared to strike back. What they lacked in voter numbers they were able to compensate with legal maneuvering. Through a carefully coordinated administrative and judicial campaign, supported by the highly politicized bureaucratic and military elite in Bangkok, the ‘yellow-shirts’ were able to draw attention to several instances of abuse of power and corruption by the Shinawatra government. In 2006, the military toppled Shinawatra’s populist administration, arguing that it had abused its power and disrespected the royal family.
Shinawatra left the country in order to avoid arrest on corruption charges. But the throngs of ‘red-shirt’ voters remained steadfast. And when he nominated a successor, Samak Sundaravej, campaigning for the populist People’s Power Party, Shinawatra’s voters promptly voted him into power in the 2007 general elections. So Shinawatra effectively continued to run the country from exile. Shortly afterwards, another judicial maneuver from the ‘yellow-shirts’ prompted the country’s Constitutional Court to declare the Sundaravej government guilty of electoral fraud. In a move backed by the pro-royalist military, the new government was dissolved and a ‘yellow-shirt’-linked caretaker administration was appointed in its place. Elections were held in 2011, which were, once again, won in a landslide by a ‘red-shirt’ candidate, this time Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, who campaigned for the Pheu Thai (For Thais) party. She became Thailand’s first female prime minister. Once again, however, this new ‘red-shirt’ government was declared illegal on a technicality (the alleged unconstitutional transfer of a top security officer) and dissolved by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on May 7, 2014.
There have been regular protests by both sides ever since Mr Thaksin was ousted in 2006, but in the past few years the focus has been on the current Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai government.
The protests began to escalate into violence last November, after the lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill which critics said could allow Mr Thaksin to return from exile without serving time in jail. The anti-government camp claims that at least 28 people have died since then.
The sudden intervention by the armed forces has been criticized by human rights activists and foreign governments, including the United States.