Military coups and states of emergency are weird experiences at the best of times. They are particularly weird when there is very little information in the local vernacular about it.
Many Thais are only waking up this morning to discover that the nation’s military launched a coup against the controversial Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last night. The coup was launched when 14 tanks surrounded the central government compound and locked down the civic centre of Bangkok.
Thais knew something was wrong last night — all Thai language television channels suspended normal programming and replaced it with patriotic music and written messages urging all to remain indoors. Only those with access to cable TV — a small minority — caught the news on a specialist Thai news channel or the foreign news channels CNN and BBC. I experienced the weird phenomenon of being asked to explain to normal Thais what the BBC was saying about their own crisis.
Thai soldiers stand guard in front of the Government House in Bangkok overnight.
Then, at midnight, CNN and BBC were taken off the air and mobile phone service across Bangkok were cut, preventing SMS texting and, presumably, the capability to form mobs (internet connectivity is low here, SMS rules).
All we really know is that the coup was apparently undertaken out of loyalty to the monarch and to the cause of democracy. Thaksin was hanging on after a delegitimised election victory earlier this year in an effective caretaker capacity and there has been much talk that the only reason a coup hadn’t happened to date was because of the King’s anniversary celebrations, now long gone.
Added to this, Thais were displeased with some of Thaksin’s recent private business dealings, in particular the multi-billion dollar sale of his family’s stake in a telecommunications company on which he paid no taxes.
With Thaksin in the Americas for various multilateral meetings, and a particularly brutal bombing this week in the southern city of Hat Yai, following an apparent botched assassination attempt on Thaksin that many say was faked to frame elements of the military, the time was a ripe as ever for a coup.
Waking to an overthrown government is something Thais have considerable experience at handling. The first coup in modern Thai political history was in 1932, when absolute monarchy was overthrown for constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand has seen 17 coups come and go, some successful, others not, with the most recent military intervention coming in 1991.
Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is yet to make a statement on the coup, but at this stage, in the absence of a public condemnation, speculation is mounting that he supports it. The tanks which rolled through Bangkok’s streets last night wore yellow ribbons around their gun barrels in a show of support to the King.
The big question for Thais today is how much the entire military supports the coup. Thaksin has moved supporters into various bits of the military – and for his faults, Thaksin is genuinely popular among the rural masses and a people’s choice as PM outside of Bangkok and the city’s military and social elites.
It could well be that the military contains fifth columns that support Thaksin, and which support his call for a state of emergency, leading to everyone’s worst nightmare — an intra-military conflict for control of the nation. In such a situation, the country is again — as so often before — likely to be forced to turn to the monarchy to find a solution to its crisis.