It was entirely predictable that the Thai army’s declaration of martial law would evolve into a formal military coup. Taking control of the government appeared to be the army’s plan from the outset. In an era in which military coups are regarded with increasing distaste by the international community, the army wanted this particular coup to be seen as non-threatening, if not actually tasteful.
The military coup remains non-threatening as anti-government “yellow shirt” protesters, who had sworn to redouble their efforts over the weekend to topple the caretaker government, have now abandoned their protest sites quietly, and with the assistance of military-supplied buses. Despite the view that the army favours the opposition-backed yellow shirt faction, the military is not likely to immediately accede to their demands for the appointment of a pro-royalist “people’s council”.
The army initiated its martial law program on Tuesday morning to ensure it had control of the political situation, and if there were no external backlash, it was safe to move to stage two. When government and opposition leaders met, the army stepped in and arrested them, dealing a definitive blow to both camps at once.
The pro-government red shirt protesters, camped on the edges of Bangkok, have also been encouraged to pack up and return home, if in a less gentle manner than the yellow shirts. With a curfew in place from 10pm until 5am and a ban on gatherings of more than five people, the makeshift camps have been abandoned.
The interim government, in place since elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and several of her ministers were sacked two weeks ago, had planned to hold fresh elections in August. The question now is whether such elections will take place and, if so, when.
The opposition Democratic Party would be very unlikely to be successful in an electoral contest, and it will continue to oppose fresh elections. The army has suspended the existing constitution which, while less democratic than its predecessor, still ensured an outcome roughly in keeping with the will of the majority. What appears more likely is that the constitution will again be rewritten, further restricting its democratic intent. While this might not deliver to the yellow shirts the “people’s council” they want, it would likely give the conservative, pro-royalist and middle and upper classes either something close to control of, or veto over, the levers of power.
But it is also possible that the army will wait a suitable period and then appoint something approximating a “people’s council” in any case. A military-appointed government comprised of senior officers, conservative technocrats, a few of the previously appointed (rather than elected) senators and a conservative judge or two would fit that bill very nicely.
Within Bangkok, there is unlikely to be much protest, at least in the short term. The chances of protests achieving anything substantial are far too low and the price that would surely be paid would be far too high.
However, despite the way that Thai politics is often played, Bangkok is not Thailand, and events in the capital do not dictate what happens in the rest of the country. Even as the red shirts retreat to their homes in Bangkok’s slums and the north and north-east of the country, they will no doubt be angry the government they had legitimately elected has been deposed in a military coup, for the second time in a row.
A number of the red shirts street-level leaders were survivors of Thailand’s communist insurgency of the 1970s and early ’80s. They are no longer communist if, indeed, many ever were in a formal sense. But they do feel aligned with the country’s politically and economically dispossessed. They also have very good organisational skills.
Thai politics will now have a period of military administration, possibly followed by a “people’s council” and eventually a new, less democratic, constitution. But the majority, who elected Thaksin Shinawatra and then his sister Yingluck, had found their political voice. As Latin American revolutionaries once noted, if you teach people to read and write, then even though the revolution may be defeated, the people will never lose their literacy. The poor and dispossessed of Thailand have lost their voice, but they will not have lost their political literacy.
Thai politics has had an institutionalised political divide, which is ordinarily able to be mediated via the democratic “rules of the game”. But the opposition yellow shirts have given up on the rules of the game, and the Thai army has now thrown out those rules. It has replaced them, yet again, with the threat of the gun.
As this was being written, there was no further political violence in Thailand. Whether this peace can be maintained, and what is to happen to the democratic aspirations of most Thai people, is far less certain.
*The author requested anonymity due to the current media crackdown in Thailand