A good coup? Military rule is unlikely to heal Thailand

Thai police keep watch at a shopping centre in Bangkok where authorities remain on guard for any protests against military rule. EPA/Narong Sangnak

Six weeks ago, Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a military takeover. The constitution was set aside, while leaving the monarchy in place. The army soon reconsidered, though, and retained much of the 2007 constitution. Critically, this included sections dealing with the succession of the monarchy.

This was either the 13th or 14th successful coup (depending on definitions) since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The bloodless coup followed months of mass protests and chaos in government before Yingluck Shinawatra was forced to stand down as prime minister. The trigger was government attempts last November to restore a fully elected senate and extend an amnesty that would have enabled convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile eight years after being deposed.

It has been suggested that in effect the military takeover was executed on behalf of the royal network or old elite. Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall depicts an enormous struggle over access to the tremendous wealth controlled by the palace, particularly by the Crown Property Bureau, between the old elite and a new elite that has supported Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party and taken advantage of its rank-and-file supporters.

The key to such access, according to Marshall, is control of the royal succession and, to that end, control of whatever is the national assembly. The Senate constituted that assembly for the purposes of the succession before May 22, but its behaviour was not entirely predictable. An appointed national assembly will soon be in place.

Prayuth acted after a visit to the king. It is not known what Prayuth learned about the 86-year-old king’s health or what they discussed. After the visit, a military takeover may have seemed to him more urgent.

People’s Democratic Reform Committee leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who headed the protests, is reported to have said he had been plotting with Prayuth since 2010 to bring down “the Thaksin regime”. That would hardly be a surprise, but Suthep’s statements smack of “big-noting” and Prayuth has denied the claim.

The impact of military rule

Since the takeover, the army has invited critical journalists and academics, dissidents and supporters of the previous government, including members of the “red shirt” movement – as well as some PDRC leaders – to visit for tea and a chat. Those who decline the invitation face a military court, martial law having substituted courts-martial for civilian courts.

Having suspended habeas corpus and the usual civil rights, the regime has detained people who publicly oppose its exercises in “re-education”.

Several local TV and radio stations are off the air. The army is rumoured to be planning severe control of the internet. The Bangkok Post has reported that panels drawn from the armed services and others will monitor all media.

On the streets, the army and the police have become less visible. The citizenry has been muted in its reactions to the coup. The red shirts have retreated from the streets of Bangkok and even indicated some willingness to participate in the army’s reconciliation games.

For two or three weekends the army and the police sent thousands of officers to meet bands of up to 200 people at a few rally points in the city. Authorities banned the three-finger sign that was adopted as a symbol of dissent. Occasional scuffles have occurred between soldiers and the few citizens defying the ban. Citizens are encouraged to submit photos to the junta of persons who do so.

A three-finger salute showing dissent against military rule – used here at the Thai embassy in Manila – has been banned in Thailand. EPA/Dennis M Sabangan

The army has acted quickly to give rice farmers their belated payment for the last rice crop. Civil servants can be heard applauding the fact that projects are on the move again after enormous delays under the previous government (and the caretaker government). The army claims it is checking large projects for corruption and malfeasance.

To keep the public happy, the army is to review energy and fuel prices. At the outset of the World Cup, authorities insisted all matches be screened free to air and agreed to compensate the cable network owners of the broadcast rights.

The military takeover caused an enormous efflux of Cambodians working illegally in Thailand. The army quickly sought to calm fears and to encourage the return of the workers to the multitude of enterprises that have come to depend on them, as long as they obtain visas and work permits. The army’s ham-fisted frightener was supposedly meant to clean up human trafficking.

The coup and the national divide

One recent article suggests that young people migrating to Bangkok from Thailand’s north and north-east are not as committed to the red-shirt movement or as likely to be enlisted into a Thaksinist party as their parents were over the last two decades. They are focused on securing good jobs and career opportunities on the back of improved rural education.

Similarly, the sons and daughters of Bangkok’s middle class of business owners, professionals and civil servants are primarily committed to high incomes and stylish consumption.

Arguably, both groups want to be rid of corruption and the old order of entitlements and to get on with effective economic management and social justice, as long as someone else goes to the trouble.

Against that background, the coup can seem a necessary straightening out in advance of restoration of parliamentary democracy, which itself is seen as being as much about protecting relations with the US as anything else.

The army claims to be capable of reconciling red shirts and supporters of the previous government with the royalist “yellow shirts” and PDRC. Just what it proposes to do is unclear. Some moves have drawn charges of army bias (towards the PDRC); others have raised wry smiles.

It seems the army believes it can appoint 200 members from all important sections of the community to a new national assembly (along with 250 supposed experts for the Reform Council) who will be willing to compromise. But it is only eight years since the last coup, the subsequent constitutional assembly, new constitution and restoration of parliamentary democracy of sorts. Despite all that effort, important structures have not changed.

A new national assembly won’t change these structures. That would require measures such as effectively redistributing income through reform of the land tax (or perhaps by the wealth tax mooted by the army); directing more resources to education and health care in rural and suburban areas; providing social security to the poor; securing farmland by better land-use regulation; and using government initiatives and resources to realise opportunities created by a new ASEAN Economic Community.

At the same time, the trafficking and exploitation of illegal migrants cannot be allowed to continue to provide a dishonourable floor to incomes of Thais throughout the country.