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Can Thailand be saved by a coup d'etat?

Thailand's military seizes power after failure by politicos to resolve months of paralysing protests.

Last updated: 23 May 2014 12:00
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Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha [second from right] announced a coup after his efforts to reconcile rival political factions failed [EPA]

Bangkok, Thailand - Martial law continued to rule Thailand on Friday after the military chief seized power saying warring political factions had failed to resolve months of turmoil that has paralysed this southeast Asian nation.

Politicians on both sides of the political divide were rounded up Thursday and summoned to appear by the army on Friday as the country entered its fourth day under military rule.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law on national television at 3am on Tuesday, saying it was necessary to prevent an escalation of violence as thousands of government supporters from the north and northeast converged on the capital, Bangkok. The pro-government "Red Shirts" had mobilised as they've done in the past following the dismissal of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck - sister of divisive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a bloodless 2006 coup d'etat - was sacked earlier this month in a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Court. Her opponents say Yingluck was a proxy for Thaksin, alleging the billionaire telecoms tycoon continued to call the shots from exile in Dubai. Yingluck turned herself in to the army on Friday.

The constitution was suspended and television and radio stations were taken off air on Thursday after the Prayuth and other senior military figures appeared on national television announcing their seizure of power. An indefinite 10pm-5am curfew was also imposed.

Anti-government protesters upset with the Shinawatra family and their leadership began street demonstrations last November demanding the government's ouster and political reform towards the rule of an unelected "people's council". Sporadic violence erupted soon after, killing at least 28 people and wounding hundreds of others.

Thaksin and his allies have won every election since 2000, garnering a majority of support from rural Thais who benefited from his populist policies such as subsidies for rice and cheap healthcare. The elite and middle class based in Bangkok and some southern areas regard the Red Shirts with disdain, saying their leaders are guilty of vote-buying, and that the democratic system needs to be overhauled to resolve the ongoing political turbulence.
 
Professor Paul Chambers, from Chiang Mai University's Institute of South East Asian Affairs, said the coup was likely ordered by the Privy Council - a powerful group of advisers to Thailand's highly influential monarchy. While the army and others have said the military takeover was necessary to stabilise the country, Chambers balked at the suggestion.

"I definitely do not agree with that. I think that's a rationalisation to justify the arch-royalists' power grab," he told Al Jazeera. "Destroying democracy and a government elected to office by a majority of Thais is never a good thing ... There are also a lot of people here who feel the same way and are angry about what's happened."

Slow-burn coup

General Prayuth used the 100-year-old Martial Law Act to deploy soldiers to the hot-spot areas of Bangkok on Tuesday - a move denounced by human rights groups as a de facto coup d'etat. The military vehemently denied a putsch had taken place, saying martial law was necessary to keep the peace after Yingluck's ouster and the growing mobilisation of those who voted for her.

Thai army seizes power in coup

On Wednesday, representatives from all sides of the political divide were ordered to an unprecedented meeting by Prayuth to hammer out an agreement to move the country forward. It was the first time that all parties had sat down face-to-face, but it ended without a breakthrough. Prayuth ordered the representatives to do their "homework" of outlining what they'd would be willing to concede, and to return Thursday to get a deal done.

Those talks lasted about two hours before leaders - including Suthep Taugsuban, head of the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that has spearheaded paralysing demonstrations - were hustled out of the Army Club into waiting vans. Their whereabouts remain unclear.

The military immediately converged on and cleared the Red Shirts' protest camp about 25km outside of Bangkok, and the PDRC's main base at Democracy Monument. On Friday, about 100 soldiers toting M-16 rifles confiscated weapons from the PDRC site as they evicted the last remnants of the remaining demonstrators. Tents that had been there for months were hurriedly brought down and packed in trucks under the watchful eyes of Thai troops.

Despite the military's presence in some sections of the mega-city of 10 million people, on the main Sukhumvit Road life marched on as usual. Vehicles were gridlocked on the narrow, garbage-lined streets, and the BTS "skytrain" was jam-packed with travelers seemingly oblivious to the military takeover.

Military intervention is nothing new to Thailand, now with 12 successful coups and seven failed attempts since 1932.

Will the Red Shirts respond?

Thailand hasn't had a functioning government since December, when Yingluck dissolved parliament and called an election in a failed attempt to appease her opponents. Her Pheu Thai party won the vote in February, but with the main opposition Democrat Party boycotting the ballot and many voting stations blocked by anti-government supporters, the Constitutional Court later nullified the election.

Some Red Shirt leaders will try to fight, but the army now has the upper hand.

- Paul Chambers, Chiang Mai University

It remains to be seen what happens next. If an unelected government that is PDRC-friendly is installed, the Red Shirts and their United Front Against Dictatorship (UDD) have vowed to converge on the capital, as they did in 2010 when tens-of-thousands took over Bangkok's business district for months, before a military crackdown dispersed them - killing about 90 people in the process.

"There is an effort to break the will of the UDD and government so that something more along with what PDRC wants can be brought in," David Streckfuss, a political analyst based in the Red Shirt heartland of Khon Kaen, told Al Jazeera. "If a PDRC-friendly government is installed ... then the Red Shirts will respond sharply."

Chambers, however, said unlike 2010, the Red Shirts' protest power has been diminished - for now at least.

"Some Red Shirt leaders will try to fight, but the army now has the upper hand in this. In the short term, their position is weak, but in the long term - as people get angrier and angrier - the coup will galvanize their support. In the end, this will help Thaksin and his proxies, this just plays into his needs to build his political base," Chambers said.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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