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Coup in Thailand: Stability returns, but what about unity and trust?

Coup in Thailand: Stability returns, but what about unity and trust?
Published 23 May 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan


So finally the coup that wasn't a coup (according to General Prayuth Chan-ocha on 20 May) is, two days later, officially a coup. 

It was not altogether a surprise (as I've highlighted in previous posts here and here). The military has long been an actor in Thai politics, and since the protests began more than six months ago the Army has repeatedly said it could step in. Yesterday's action marks the country's twelfth successful coup in 80 years. The story so far:

  • Party and protest leaders have been arrested and protest areas dispersed by the Army. The former acting prime minister, not under arrest at the time of writing, has been asked to hand himself in.
  • The Army suspended all articles of the constitution, a document it drafted in 2007, except those 'pertaining to the Monarchy'.
  • General Prayuth has established the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC) to restore peace; martial law will remain with no public gatherings of more than five people allowed.
  • All domestic TV and radio channels were suspended by late yesterday afternoon, followed by the suspension of international services of the BBC, Bloomberg and CNN.
  • The streets were clogged with traffic as people tried to get home before the 10pm to 5am curfew announced by the Army early Thursday evening.

The Army Chief's failure to inform the caretaker government of his intentions to enact martial law on 20 May was a good indication that he was going it alone. In fact, an aide to the acting caretaker PM called the enactment of martial law 'half a coup d'état'.

Even if this was an honest oversight on the Army's part, it didn't put General Prayuth in the best of negotiating positions as he embarked on two days of dialogue to break the political deadlock. Indeed, at a dialogue organised by the General in the hours after the enactment of martial law, the acting caretaker PM was not even present. Those attending included representatives from the two political parties (the ruling Pheu Thai and the opposition Democrat Party) as well as the two protest camps (the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship [UDD] and the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee [PDRC]). Representatives from the Election Commission and Senate were also present.

As the General made his announcement yesterday afternoon, soldiers surrounded the Army Club where the talks were taking place. Both protest leaders, Suthep Thaungsuban and Jatuporn Prompan, as well as political party leaders, were detained. The success of this round-up and detention of all the key actors appears premeditated. Those attending the dialogue appear to have been hoodwinked, and in a country so desperate for trust-building and unity, this may not be easily forgotten.

Now, with the 'dialogue' over and the Army officially in control, many hope that stability will return to Thailand. That could be wishful thinking. [fold]

The problem remains that the country is divided. Red Shirts have condemned the move that ousted their Pheu Thai government. The UDD warned on Twitter on Thursday that 'Now it is a Coup — Stand by for Retaliation'. The Red Shirts may now act on their earlier pledge to return to Chiang Mai and set up a government-in-exile in the northern city or to regroup and march on Bangkok. Regardless, they will continue their protests in the north and northeast of the country where they have strong support. 

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former PM, hasn't been seen for days and many are asking if she's fled to Chiang Mai or abroad. Her brother Thaksin went into exile after his government suffered a military coup in 2006. What the Shinawatras do next will be important. With tensions high, a call for calm could damage their voter base, but rallying them would damage their international standing and only widen the divisions in the country .

Similarly, the actions of the police force (seen as largely supporting the Red Shirts) will be important. While the police have been called under the umbrella of the Army Chief's NPOMC, the police force's role is likely to diminish under the military government. Police allegiances could shift north, where the NPOMC will struggle to maintain order. 

Meanwhile Suthep, the PDRC leader, may have less to worry about. Photos are circulating on social media of his Yellow Shirt supporters celebrating the Army take-over that has ousted the Pheu Thai government. The coup, above all, is a victory for them. 

The Army too (like the country itself) is split – lower ranks have over the past six months been largely supportive of the pro-government Red Shirts and higher ranks more supportive of anti-government Yellow Shirts. A split in the Army cannot be ruled out, although this will likely be carefully monitored by the military leadership. 

During this week's talks, the Election Commission presented two options: elections in five months or elections in 1-2 years. Whether the NPOMC pursues either timetable is unknown. Yet Pheu Thai (which has won a strong majority in elections for over a decade) would likely win a new election. And that could bring Suthep and his supporters back to the streets, regardless of the presence of the Shinawatras.

This is an intractable dispute. It is about the future of Thailand and how it should be governed. It is about democracy and economy and how the two should intersect or be separated. It is also about the elephant in the room, the royal succession. With large rallies previously planned to take place this weekend, the coup may have pulled the country back from the precipice of all-out violence. But nothing is resolved, so this military government has an excuse to stay in power for some time yet.

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