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.