The military seems to be back in play in Thailand, with the army fanning out through the crowded streets of Bangkok on Tuesday. According to the army it isn’t actually yet a coup, just a taking responsibility for order and security. This is something Thailand is deeply in need of, after months of protests which have left the government neutralised and the country polarised. But the government and its supporters are deeply sceptical, fearing this will turn into yet another coup. So why has the military acted now? Whose side are they on? And why is this such a problem in Thailand?
For a simple explanation of who the protesters in Thailand are, and the redshirt/yellowshirt divide, my very first blog post was about these protests.
The Thai military is so far carefully making clear that this isn’t a ‘normal’ coup, instead declaring martial law. This gives them a wide range of powers to keep order in the country. They have taken control of both pro- and anti-government radio stations, and halted any further protests for the timing being. What they haven’t done is take over the government. Instead the chief of the army is meeting with the government and the protesters, while soldiers ensure order. These talks are most likely to see if any sort of agreement can be made on how to solve the political deadlock. However, the military action could also be seen as a clear signal to the government that it must make concessions to end the strife. The Thai army has traditionally been on the side of the King and the elites and therefore the ‘yellowshirt’ protesters, and everybody knows this. That’s why the government, who gets its support from the rural population (the ‘redshirts’), will be feeling extremely threatened.
If the army does decide to remove the government, it will be the 12th coup for Thailand in 80 years. Since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 it has mainly been governed by either the military or military appointed Prime Ministers. However, the election in 2001 that brought the ‘redshirt’ Thaksin Shinawatra to power changed this system of Bangkok governance, and gave the rural population a say in events for the first time.
That’s why there was such anger when the army overthrew Thaksin in 2006. His government was involved in a corruption scandal, and after he won another election amid protests the army got involved. This in turn provoked the redshirts into their own protests. Four years later in 2010 the army finally cleared redshirt protest camps, killing 90 people. So while it presents itself as securing law and order, the military is definitely not neutral. Its long history of governing means it has a strong feeling of responsibility for ensuring stability, but its traditional alliance with the Bangkok elites makes its role more dubious.
The main danger now is that the military decides to remove the government, effectively negating the last few elections and giving the protesters what they want. This is certain to enrage the rural population and start redshirt protests. This is a situation which could end up leading to a long-term end to democracy, and a change of system to benefit the elites. The government can only hope that the army will use its influence with the yellowshirts to bring a true negotiated end to this period of conflict.