Wednesday’s post was outdated 24 hours after I wrote it, after Thailand’s military took over the government. On Tuesday the army declared martial law, but insisted it wasn’t a coup. Two days later, it was a coup, and for the 12th time in their history Thailand’s government had been overthrown. So how did the coup go down? What are the immediate effects? And what does this mean for the future of Thai democracy?
The Thai army made their move right under the eyes of the world’s media. The government had been meeting with protest leaders in Bangkok’s luxurious Army Club, with the media waiting outside to try to speak to the leaders. According to Thai sources, talks had been going on for 5 hours when the army chief put a stop to it, asking “The government insists that it won’t resign, right?” When the Minister of Justice confirmed this, General Prayuth Chan-ocha replied “Sorry, I must seize power.” He then ordered the arrest of all leaders present, both from the government and the protesters.
The first the world knew about it was when soldiers suddenly started forcing the media back from where they had been standing outside the Army Club (video). While reporters tried to pry details from the stone-faced soldiers, cars swept from the building carrying the arrested politicians. Gen Prayuth then went on TV with his “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” to declare that he had taken over the government “to restore order and enact reforms”. There was no mention of when power would be handed back to the people
The situation now seems to be calm. A curfew has been declared from 22:00 to 05:00 each night (it’s hard to imagine a Thai city actually shutting down at ten in the evening, or the streets of Bangkok being empty), and foreign TV channels have been blocked. Local TV channels for a time played only ‘soothing music’ – the soundtrack to many a coup. All protest camps in Bangkok have been cleared, and protests against the coup have so far been very small.
The signs for the long term however are not so good. On Friday and Saturday the military arrested over 100 leaders, including former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced to resign a few months ago. Worryingly, some of these were academics and people accused of insulting the monarchy (a bad idea in Thailand), indicating that the army is aiming for a wider crackdown to ensure no real opposition gets going. Gen. Prayuth also announced that he would be taking over the role of the Senate, and directed the judicial branch of government to follow his orders. In effect, he is now the state.
There is also not yet any real sign of how the army plans to deal with the deep divide in Thai politics and society. If the army would choose to hold a new election without any changes to the system, a redshirt party will almost certainly win, bringing everyone back to square one. But if they make reforms, as they plan to, this in essence means gaming the system so that the yellow shirt Democrat Party can actually win the elections. It would be hard to do this in a democratic way. This would alienate the rural north and east of the country, and would certainly not lead to long term stability.
At the moment Thailand awaits a response by the redshirt opponents of the coup. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to mount huge protests in Bangkok, like the ones that ended in bloodshed in 2010, or whether the army can act quick enough to stop them. It’s clear that even if they have arrested leaders on both sides, this coup is designed to put an end to redshirt government. Gen. Prayuth got the leaders of the two sides to the Army Club so that they could negotiate a deal. By forcing Thailand’s latest coup he may have put a deal further away than ever.