Thailand: Yet another coup

Thailand’s military coup is democracy at the barrel of a gun.

The Thai military has cleared protest camps in Bangkok [Getty Images]

First a judicial coup, now a military coup. Thailand’s political crisis has taken another illegitimate turn, as democracy unravels.

Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha appeared on television on May 22 to announce it was “necessary” for the armed forces to take control of the country.

Under the coup, the cabinet and police report to Prayuth, Thailand’s latest unelected leader. Political gatherings of more than five people are banned and TV broadcasting suspended, including international news channels. Schools are closed. A curfew between 10pm and 5am local time is in place.

The coup sends a sinister message that Thailand is no longer a functioning state. Prayuth’s words and actions are frustratingly at odds with his pretence of employing the coup as civilising device. Another statement by the military read, “In order to run the country smoothly, it has suspended the constitution of 2007.” International lawyer for the Red Shirt movement, which supports former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra., Robert Amsterdam, labels the disposal of the 2007 constitution an illegitimate move. The state is in conflict with itself.

Two days earlier, Prayuth introduced nationwide martial law to restore “law and order”. Are armed troops, military vehicles and barbed wire supposed to restore calm to Bangkok?

Although the army broke up protest camps, the move by Prayuth could provoke a confrontation between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, who are opposed to Thaksin. Hours before the announcement, the military had met rival political sides and members of the election commission in last-ditch discussions in Bangkok. The generals claim the talks failed to break the impasse and detained leaders from both sides after the meeting. Deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been detained by the military. How this is part of restoring “law and order” is debtable.

Deep political rupture

Before the recent imposition of martial law Thailand was already struggling with deep political rupture. Six months of tension were brought to a head with Yingluck’s dismissal from office on May 7. Bundled with anti-Yingluck allies, the Constitutional Court ruled she abused her power over the appointment of a relative to a senior government position.

Thai army seizes power in coup

The uncomfortable truth for the Thai establishment is that Yingluck was elected by popular vote. Yingluck and her brother Thaksin have won every Thai election since 2001 by a landslide.Thaksin himself was ousted in a coup in 2006. The establishment’s tendency to render the ballot box invalid when it thrusts a rival into power has become all too predictable.

The justification for the coup seems flimsy at best, downright ominous at worst.

US Secretary of State John Kerry swiftly came out to condemn the action, “There is no justification for this military coup,” he said.

Was the Thai state sufficiently broken to warrant a military coup? Bangkok was still a functioning, if limping, metropolis. The Stock Exchange of Thailand continued to trade. The civil service still served. Although deadly at times, clashes were sporadic and not endemic. Despite the bitter divide, reconciliation between pro-Thaksin camp and the elite loyalists remained a possibility.

The Martial Law Act of 1914 is now the law of the land. Under this century-old legislation, Human Rights Watch, writes, “the military without judicial oversight, can prohibit any activity, censor the media at will, outlaw meetings and assemblies, search and seize any item, occupy areas, and detain people without charge for up to seven days.” This is a sweeping umbrella of legislation by the standards of any half-baked authoritarian regime.

Under the act, the military has stamped out the media. More than 10 television stations and thousands of radio stations deemed troublemaking were taken off air. The military is eyeing the power of social media as a rallying medium for Thaksin supporters. Could the internet be Prayuth’s next victim?

Coup as a justified operating tool

Clean, responsible and transparent governance secures the popular vote. That’s how respectable democracies work. In Thailand, the establishment, with the monarchy at its heart, is less partial to this side of democracy. Instead, they continue to wholeheartedly believe the coup is a justified operating tool. A button to be pressed when events – like the vote – aren’t going their way.

Thailand is no stranger to coups the elites remind us. Twelve coups, seventeen charters or constitutions and 28 prime ministers since the demise of absolute monarchy in 1932. Despite the current turbulence, they maintain “Teflon Thailand” will bounce back.

But the turmoil is threatening.

Soldiers posing for selfies next to tourists make good holiday snaps. But underneath the smiles, the political and bureaucratic tectonic plates are shifting to a position more acceptable to the establishment.

Unless a free election is called soon, the Red Shirts will find the new status quo difficult to comprehend. The prospect of further bloodshed, and a repeat of the tragic events of 2010 when around 90 people were killed in a crackdown, is far greater now than before the coup.

In his article “The Myth of Khaki Democracy“, academic Ian Buruma, writes, “educated people who pride themselves on being democrats have ended up applauding military coups against elected governments.” This applies to the Bangkok elite. As urban sophisticates they are happy to taste the commercial fruits of globalisation, but not its democratising effects.

But an old-fashioned coup d’etat style of crackdown is unrealistic in an age of 24/7 television and social media. This is not the Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s when the United States was able to usurp unwanted leaders by might and stealth. Smartphones and the internet are the new weapons of war.

The final roll call is that political legitimacy does not derive from the barrel of a gun. It is rooted in delivering on the voice of the majority, while considering the sentiments of the minority.The Thai nation as a whole, not just a tiny few, stands to benefit from this approach.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.