Tanks roll into the capital through a dark monsoonal downpour, taking up position around Government House. Mobile telephone networks are switched off. BBC and CNN disappear off the air. One by one, all TV signals are replaced by images of the King, patriotic songs, and later, photos of celebrities like Orlando Bloom and Scarlett Johannsson.
(Bloggers later speculated that the internet stayed up because it didn’t figure in the coup leaders’ calculations: after all, they’re old men from Bangkok’s old guard.)
It’s Thailand’s 19th military coup since 1932 a hell of a way to restore democracy, but the self-styled Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) insists that is what it’s doing.
Initially, Thais accepted the assurances of army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, with life in Bangkok continuing roughly as usual in the days following the 19 September military takeover. The local currency, the baht, didn’t even take a significant hit, recovering most of its coup losses by the end of last week.
But the first murmurings of public dissent emerged over the weekend, when a small group of protesters gathered in front of Bangkok’s Siam Centre. Numerically, they had nothing on the mass protests against now-ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of earlier this year but they did have symbolic significance. They were a lonely, Thai voice for democracy as a means and not just an end.
Political activity and gatherings of more than five people for political purposes have been banned under martial law, but no arrests were made at the weekend protest.
Then on Sunday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, who were instrumental in organising the anti-Thaksin protests, weighed in. Restyling themselves as the Popular Campaign for Democracy, they demanded civilian input into the new Constitution. And on Monday afternoon, a group from Thammasat University planned a deliberately provocative debate about the coup, saying that any arrests would prove the junta was ‘insincere’ about restoring democracy.
You’d think, from the admittedly mild denunciations of foreign leaders (‘disappointing’ was the worst of it), the protesters would have friends in the West. Yet, platitudes aside, neither Australia, the US, nor any of the EU countries that voiced objections to the coup are recalling their diplomats, halting trade or severing ties with Thailand. No one’s that worried overseas.
Thais, though, have reason to be wary. Under martial law, a censorship regime has been imposed. Some radio stations were shut down on Friday in the poor northeastern province of Isaan, a former Thaksin stronghold. TV and radio were ‘asked’ to suspend any interactive services where the voice of the people might get too loud or unruly. Website mediators are also expected to reign in any content that is too inflammatory.
An online story in Friday’s Bangkok Post business section, which sought to weigh the damage done by the coup to Thailand’s economy and reputation, vanished without a trace the same day it was published.
Thanks to Sean Leahy
Yet, despite the dubious approach to press freedom, the coup has not yet been marked by any violence or arrests. Thais took their kids to be photographed with the troops and flowers were strewn on tanks bearing the yellow ribbon of loyalty to the King. One Western diplomat in Bangkok who is highly critical of Thaksin describes it as being more like a counter-coup, after the populist, authoritarian Prime Minister corruptly centralised power and subverted government institutions to his own ends.
Thaksin’s tax-free US$2billion profit from the sale of his telecommunications businesses in February was a flashpoint, but outrage over the billionaire tycoon’s crony capitalism had been growing in the urban centres for some time. Elected by a landslide in 2001, Thaksin used his enormous wealth to buy off the Senate, and thus was able to stack supposedly independent institutions such as the Electoral Commission (some members were jailed earlier this year) and the Constitutional Court (the only court that has been suspended by the CDR).
Thaksin’s effectiveness in pursuing international trade deals, and instituting universal health care and cheap credit schemes in regional areas were tainted by his rampant cronyism, abuse of office, self-enrichment and his human rights record.
Although rumours had been circulating for months, most thought the time for military intervention in Thailand’s political sphere was past. General Sonthi himself had previously said so. Fresh elections the third national poll in two years were scheduled for November, when the likely return of Thaksin to office would only have deepened the crisis.
One trigger for the timing of the coup was the ousted Prime Minister’s absence he was in New York, due to address the UN. Another was the annual military reshuffle, which is usually confirmed in September. Thaksin was reportedly seeking to oust General Sonthi as head of the army, as the two men had publicly clashed over how to deal with the Muslim insurgency in the south of the country.
In addition, Thai paper The Nation reported that an anti-Government rally planned for last Wednesday was to be a pretext for declaring a state of emergency, which would have given Thaksin more power and an excuse to purge the military of non-supporters.
But last Tuesday afternoon, General Sonthi mobilised the troops.
The junta has so far maintained the majority’s goodwill by keeping their guns quiet and promising a swift civilian appointment. After almost a year of political upheaval and uncertainty, their decisiveness evidently holds plenty of appeal.
Crucially, the revered King Bhumibol, who celebrated his 60th jubilee in June this year, approved the coup. That not only concludes the conversation for most of Thaksin’s former support base, but it manoeuvres any of his remaining supporters (there seems to be few) and the handful of pro-democracy protesters towards the untenable position of opposing the King.
But the King is 78, and there are doubts about succession. His less popular heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, may not command the conclusive moral authority of Bhumibol. If Thailand’s key governmental institutions are not stable by the time of Bhumibol’s passing, chaos might yet reign.
For now, the military Council promises to appoint a new prime minister, re-engineer the Constitution and hold fresh elections within a year.
On Saturday, they delivered a shortlist of candidates to the King, reportedly including former WTO head Supachai Panitchpakdi, Bank of Thailand governor Pridiyathorn Devakula, and the presidents of the Supreme Court and Administrative Court. The CDR’s bona fides depends entirely on finding a highly regarded, independent candidate and quickly handing over power.
Dr John Funston, the head of the ANU’s National Thai Studies Centre, points out that the last coup, in 1991, initially enjoyed massive public support. But it ended in tragedy and disgrace for the military the following year when soldiers killed dozens of students resisting a military attempt to cling to power. Those memories are fresh enough in many Thai people’s minds.
But those who fear that last week’s coup struck a fatal blow to Thaila
nd’s democracy should take heart. Thaksin, at least, has highlighted the weak spots in the 1997 People’s Constitution, which has no mechanism for the removal of a wealthy and corrupt prime minister. It also requires amendments to affirm the independence of significant government bodies and regulators.
In addition, the CDR has appointed nine ‘graft-busters’ to gather evidence of corruption. Some former Thaksin ministers are already in military custody. If Thaksin does return to Thailand, he will face arrest and trial and probably asset seizure.
That’s a lot better than, say, being shot on sight, or suffocating to death in the back of an unventilated truck. Such were the respective fates of countless suspected drug dealers on the Burmese border, and of 85 Muslim dissidents in the south, under Thaksin’s rule.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.