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By Thailand's future lies in its ordinary people's democratic aspirations, and not in military rule, writes Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty The author is a former secretary, ministry of external affairs, and a former ambassador to Thailand
  • Published 10.06.14

Thailand’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, ousted the caretaker civilian government and took control of the government on May 22. The General moved quickly to consolidate his hold over power. He declared himself acting prime minister, suspended the constitution, imposed night curfew and dismantled the permanent protest sites in Bangkok of opposing supporters and forcibly sent them home. Since then, he has received endorsement from the ailing king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been in a Bangkok hospital for several years. A royal decree has been issued appointing the army chief as head of the National Council for Peace and Order, an odd-sounding name, reminiscent of SLORC, the slurpy sounding name adopted by the Myanmar military junta. Effectively, the Thai army chief is now the head of his country’s government. Since 1932, when absolute monarchy was abolished and Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, there have been 19 coups of some form or the other. Thailand army’s 19 coups in 82 years, make it a world record holder in conducting coups. Kicking out civilian governments periodically seems to be ingrained in the Thai army’s DNA.

In his first press conference, the Thai army chief has warned people not to join street protests and defended the detention of hundreds of politicians. The military junta has adopted tactics designed to intimidate business people and academics, who are outspoken opponents of the coup, and asked them to report to a military council at an army base. Some of them may be detained and forced to keep quiet. The Thai media have been forced by groups of soldiers to stop broadcasting and play Thai military music and air the military junta’s pronouncements only. Earlier, more than 150 leading politicians from across the political spectrum — including the deposed prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra — were detained at army establishments and others banned from leaving the country. Most, if not all, have since been released and sent home and warned not to create trouble.

The military coup followed after almost seven months of political turmoil, manifesting itself in mobs of supporters besieging government offices for the past six months. The prime minister’s office and several other government ministries and offices were stormed and occupied by protesters, forcing ministers to operate from alternate premises. Reluctant to use force, the government abandoned these buildings. Elections were scheduled for July 20 this year, the second in one year. The opposition had boycotted an earlier election in February this year. The election was declared null and void for this reason. The annulled election in February was precipitated by the Constitutional Court ruling that the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was guilty of the misuse of power because she had transferred the national security chief, appointed by the previous government, and appointed a person who was a relative of the divorced wife of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, her exiled elder brother. Finally, on May 20, the Thai army declared martial law and introduced various media curbs. The May 22 coup that followed was a logical extension of the imposition of martial law.

Coups in Thailand are usually bloodless. Politicians and the people are not prone to violence even while opposing army rule, though some sporadic and largely peaceful protests have been visible in Bangkok. This has something to do with the Thai people’s Buddhist beliefs. The Land of Smiles, as Thailand is known as, that is Bangkok is reasonably calm and there is no mass exodus of tourists from this most tourist-friendly Asian country and its undoubtedly vibrant capital city, Bangkok.

International reaction has been low-key. India announced that it is monitoring the situation. It has cancelled the modest annual military exercise, between the two armies, codenamed “Maitree”. The United States, Thailand’s long-standing ally since the days of the Cold War, asserted that there is no justification for the coup and it will have negative implications for bilateral relations. The US announced a review of its bilateral military relationship, stopped military aid and called for immediate restoration of democracy. Japan, a major stakeholder in Thailand’s economy, also called for the restoration of democracy. These statements are relatively anodyne; perhaps owing to the fact that Thailand has had a history of military coups, which last for some time till a democratically elected government takes its place. The 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nation, of which Thailand is a member, functions on the principle of strict non-interference in the domestic politics of its members. It will, therefore, keep quiet.

By the end of 2015, Asean has the ambitious goal to integrate into a common market. Thailand’s military coup may have little impact on this ambitious goal, though there are bound to be questions raised. Asean cannot achieve its full potential with the subversion of democracy in one of its most dynamic economies.

Thailand’s Generals, like all coup-makers, claim that their action is motivated by nationalistic sentiments to save their country from squabbling and venal politicians. But a military junta running the government is hardly the preferred alternative to even a flawed democracy. Thailand suffers from a lack of independent democratic institutions. The most important institutions are dominated by nominated and partisan people, who act as a bulwark for the royalist coterie and its supporters. The army chief has talked about political reforms before any elections can be held, for which he has refused to lay down any time-frame.

If, in the name of political reforms, the Thai army resorts to old tactics, using a pliable judiciary, then this would mean a replay of events in 2007, which led to the disbanding of the Thai Rak Thai Party, the precursor of the ruling Pheu Thai Party and a ban on fighting elections on hundreds of politicians. The prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and politicians from her Pheu Thai Party may meet the same fate this time too. The royalists and the traditional power-brokers cannot win elections any more. Hence, the so-called political reforms are their chosen route to get back to power on the back of an army coup.

Thailand’s dysfunctional polity has hovered between a flawed democracy and a moderate autocracy in its political history. Thailand’s coup is a major blow to the people of this middle-income country. The economy will definitely be affected, as investors will hedge and hold back any new investment and may even look towards more stable democracies like Indonesia, the Philippines and even India, under a strong development-oriented government led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. Tourism will decline, eating into 20 per cent of the GDP that it generates. Thailand’s future lies in allowing the democratic aspirations of its people to flourish, which cannot be achieved through military rule. At a time when democracy is the most preferred option of most countries in the world, Thailand finds itself on the wrong side of history.