Jun 11, 2014

In Thailand old traditions die hard

Is it possible to have a just coup? The Thais might find the cure worse than the disease, reports our anonymous stringer in Bangkok

Thailand experienced its 24th coup in 82 years on May 22 -- that's almost one every three years. As a Thai journalist observed, “it is almost a tradition -- like Songkhran without wet T-shirts”. Military intervention can be like surgery or chemotherapy: undesirable, but perhaps justifiable in certain circumstances. Is it possible to have a “just” coup? A lot of good intentions propelled the military to intervene. The coup may nonetheless result in further deterioration. I was originally positive about the 2006 coup that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as it prevented industrial-scale bloodshed. Warring color-coded factions (red and yellow) were poised to destroy the city, and military intervention succeeded in restoring order. Thaksin's family fled with suitcases of cash. Unfortunately, the cure can prove worse than the disease. This time it is the same. Thailand has a vivid memory of violent clashes. In 1991, hundreds were gunned down in democracy protests. Soldiers fired a million rounds of ammunition into crowds. The centre of town was burnt. The 2006 coup only succeeded in postponing the battle between red and yellow shirt factions. In 2010 the reds burnt Bangkok anyway in frustration after they were put down by the military. They placed explosives at strategic sites around the city and threatened to detonate them. The perceived injustice of overthrowing a (dysfunctional and notoriously corrupt) democratically elected regime bizarrely increased Thaksin’s power as a martyr to democracy. He has become more powerful in absentia, ruling through proxy family figures, populism and pork barrelling. He is like Medusa, a serpent that grows new heads every time one is decapitated, just like Thailand’s southern insurgency, where thousands have been beheaded by separatist rebels. General Prayuth Chan-ocha justified the coup as necessary to restore stability and prevent violence between pro and anti-government factions. But who really stands to benefit? The seven parties convened by the military to navigate a way out of the crisis failed to reach any compromise after a second day of talks. There was no consensus on key issues. Like belligerent children, neither side was prepared to compromise for the good of the nation. Thus the military justified another coup. The constitution was suspended, curfew and censorship imposed, and Bangkok controlled by armed soldiers in armoured vehicles. There are great risks associated with military intervention. The United Nations, Australia, and the United States instantly condemned Thailand and proposed sanctions. The economy will decline further, increasing the suffering of ordinary citizens and damaging stability. The time will come for new elections, and Thaksin’s electoral base is stronger than ever. Denied the right to protest, the anguish of millions of armed and angry red shirt supporters may deteriorate into a guerrilla campaign. Thailand's neighbours are fanning the fire to settle old scores. Thaksin will continue to agitate from abroad. Civil war and secession, once incomprehensible, are awkwardly conceivable. There is consternation over succession and a power struggle in play. Over $80 billion in infrastructure projects is up for grabs. Business leaders are divided. Unlike previous crises, senior political figures with enough status to defuse the tension are either too frail or tainted by association. New political institutions and leaders are needed. The roadmap for elections is unclear, and at least 15 months away. The military has temporarily suspended violence, but there is no such thing as a “just coup”. Intervention shifted the focus away from democratic solutions. That the coup was inevitable or desirable is irrelevant. It will not restore balance. Without evolution there will always be revolution. The protests will increase intensity. More people will be locked up and disappeared. Civil society and new leaders who have Thailand's best interests at heart may eventually emerge, but deep structural issues and a culture of impunity will prevail. Political tension will plague Thailand until this power struggle is resolved.

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5 thoughts on “In Thailand old traditions die hard

  1. mrbmrm

    ‘Hydra’ rather than Medusa?

  2. Tony Kevin

    Interesting piece by Anonymous. i would love to know who he/she might be, as a former DFAT officer! Readers might like to compare this with my analysis on Eureka Street at time of initial coup. I took a more pro-Yingluck/Red Shirts position.I found Thaugsuban’s strategy and tactics odious and contrary to Thai democracy and the Thai national interest. I still believe this. Tony Kevin, former ambassador to Cambodia 1994-97.

  3. Peter Snashall

    The difference between this and previous coups is the influence and support of China. It’s a monumental difference. Just Google “Thailand China” news and you’ll learn more than any piece
    of journalism anywhere I’ve seen anywhere.

  4. Robert Jameson

    I am Robert Jameson – a subscriber to Crikey. My wife and I recently spend 10 days with my friend Kev (Ric) Richardson in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I sent him a copy of the above article and the following is his reply:

    I plead with you to respond, not on your own behalf, but on mine. You make no claims, merely say the Aussie friend you visited only two weeks ago, who has lived in Thailand 20 years, was insisting that this coup is proving the best tonic for one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

    Your friend insists that this junta is proving itself out to rid the country of the government’s corruption which has strangled so many of its people–keeping them poor so come elction time, they can buy votes.

    The Junta’s first action was to pay the warlike rice farmers their 2013 dues. The corrupt government had twice this year, approved payment, but every baht of it ‘disappeared’ before reaching the farmers. The Prime Minister (Thaksin’s sister and his puppet) and nine of her Ministers have not been arrested, but ‘detained’. Their houses have been searched and multi-millions of dollars confiscated, along with large cashes of illegal arms. Their assets have been frozen while Junta bloodhounds, working hand-in-hand with the courts, search through their records for evidence of massive corruption – yes, this by the Junta. The PM is not under House Arrest – she is allowed take to the streets so long as under the watchful eyes of two armed guards. The Junta right now has its soldiers, alongside civilian volunteers, cleaning the beaches of litter, because local councillors prefer sweeping the moneys approved for beach-cleaning into their own pockets. The books of many local councils are under investigation by Junta sleuths who declare there will be elections only when corruption has been wiped out.

    It is common knowledge in Thailand that corrupte candidates in elections distribute 500 baht notes ($au16) by the million, to voters. With half the locals over 50 years of age illiterate because they never went to school, so unable to get decent jobs, and there being no such thing as pensions (except for politicians), this 500 baht is the most money these people have had in their hand all year. It is these who vote in the corrupt Pheu Thai party.

    The Junta on Monday last, put ‘paid’ to even the CEO of Thai Air, getting free flights. That was another stone cast at the corrupt. The junta is also arresting business proprietors who don’t pay the legal minimum working wage. They had been getting away with it by paying graft money to police and other law-makers.

    “This junta is the best thing that has happened in Thailand for years,” the majority of western retirees here are shouting. All you people at ‘Cricky,’ come and hear it for yourself. Why cannot you report the truths of what is happeing in Thailand? — That at last, some honest poiticians seem to be doing something about stopping corruption by government after government!”

    Ric Richarrdson

  5. Peter Snashall

    Just read an interesting article that supports my comments about the influence of China on the recent coup. “China: Winners From Thailand’s Coup”

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