Today the Nigerian electoral commission announced that the presidential election scheduled for next Saturday would be postponed for 6 weeks, due to the Boko Haram security crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party is pleased with the decision, but the opposition APC party is not. They believe the decision was taken to give the PDP more chance to win, and they have a point. The army apparently forced the commission into the decision by informing them that the military would not be able to provide security for the election at all, as they were busy fighting. However, six weeks is not going to solve a long running and hugely difficult conflict. To make matters worse, all signs point to the elections only bringing more violence.
Wednesday’s post was outdated 24 hours after I wrote it, after Thailand’s military took over the government.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?Embed from Getty Images
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.
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?
If you’ve been to Thailand, even for a short visit like mine, you’ll notice it’s a country of huge contrasts. The Bangkok area has 20% of the population and is a huge urban mix of cramped streets and shopping malls that outdo anything in the West. It’s the centre of the country, and home to the King, the military and the elites. It is also where the opposition Democrat Party (also known as the yellowshirts) gets its support from (as well as parts of the South). It’s the party of the elites; conservative and pro-market.
The rest of the country is a lot different. The next biggest city after Bangkok has only 262 000 people, showing how rural the country is. Many of the population here are farmers, relying on rice crops for their income. The rural areas of the country are loyal to the ‘redshirt’ party. This party was first led by Thaksin Shinawatra, then by his sister Yingluck after the military removed Thaksin in 2006. The redshirts came to power in 2001, and gained huge support through guaranteeing rice prices and promoting development in the rural North and East.
This basic divide is what’s causing the protests in Bangkok. The yellowshirt Democrat Party knows that it can never win an election about the redshirts, they are too popular in the rural areas. In their opinion the redshirts are undemocratic because they buy votes with popular policies. So they decided to change the rules.
First the army removed the redshirts from government in 2006, then crushed redshirt protests in 2010, killing 90 people. However the newest version of a redshirt party still won the election in 2011. So now they are protesting the redshirt government, saying they are undemocratic and corrupt. However the protestors don’t want elections, because they know they will lose. Instead they’re calling for a “People’s Council” appointed by them, who will govern for a few years before holding elections. They are also actively trying to disrupt plans for new elections on February 2nd.
So these protesters aren’t really the ‘pro-democracy’ fighters they appear to be. In actuality it’s a battle between Bangkok elites and the rural masses for control of the country, where the elites are the ones taking to the streets and the masses are in power. The stage could even be set for a rerun of the 2006 coup, where the military eventually took the side of the yellow shirts, and forced Thaksin Shinawatra from office. January will certainly be a tense month for Prime Minister Yingluck.