In the post-coup political calm, Thailand is watching the junta, waiting to see what it will do next.
BANGKOK — “Oh, no, no, they aren’t going to run the country,” Nut, a hairdresser, says reassuringly, gesturing to Thailand’s military junta making an announcement on the flatscreen TV set in her salon.
“They’re just going to put the right system in place and then leave,” she forecast.
Just over a month into the coup staged by Thai army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, views like Nut’s are not uncommon among those who welcome the quiet of the current political climate — even if it has come at the cost of the suspension of basic rights and the quelling of dissent.
Meanwhile, others — especially those who loathe the elected government ousted by the military and its patron, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — are supportive of what they consider a putsch that was needed to prevent the country’s collapse.
For its part, the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, has been cultivating domestic acceptance through populist measures as part of its drive to “bring happiness back to the Thai people.” The NCPO has been having a tougher time internationally, however, ordering diplomats to hold briefings overseas and meeting the diplomatic and business communities here in the Thai capital.
For the most part, a visitor to Bangkok would not see much that was different, except for some armed soldiers and police. The glitzy shopping malls in the country — one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destinations — have resumed regular operating hours. Sales have been brisk and the street markets abuzz since the curfew declared by the junta on May 22 was lifted in early June.
With the armed forces in power, the protests against the pro-Thaksin caretaker government that had been staged on and off since November and brought the government to a standstill, have ended. So have the pro-government rallies, as many of its leaders have been detained, warned or wanted by the military authorities since the May 22 coup.
Meanwhile, the NCPO has been busy delivering on its slogan of bringing happiness back to the country of 66.2 million people. The weekly radio and TV program of junta leader Gen. Prayuth is called exactly that — “Returning Happiness to the People” — and this phrase appears daily in media reports about the NCPO.
Taking a leaf out of the populist handbook used by the civilian government it berated, the NCPO has arranged free local TV broadcasting of all World Cup matches. It is also aiming for a clean-up of a long list of issues, ranging from cutting the price of lottery tickets to breaking up motorcycle-taxi mafias.
An independent survey released findings showing that the junta received an approval rating of 8.82 out 10 for its first month. The same Suan Dusit Rajabhat University poll showed that about 65 percent of those surveyed want the junta to “continue governing the country until everything is properly in place.”
Quiet, but not peaceful
Despite the seeming political calm and the photos printed in local media showing Gen. Prayuth smiling and giggly youngsters taking selfies with soldiers, the country is far from being at peace.
“Thailand is like a sick man with cancer. By issuing martial law, this is a very strong dose of medicine. . . but by giving too strong a medicine like chemotherapy, you may kill the patient,” Nirun Pitakwatchara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, recalled telling the junta general in charge of “national reconciliation.”
By imposing martial law on May 20 and then staging a coup d’etat two days later in response to Thailand’s decade-long fractious political conflict, the junta did not address the roots of the problem, he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on Monday.
“It is important to use more [than] one kind of medicine [than military action],” added Nirun, a medical doctor, lest it “make the [political] confrontation worse and see further resistance.”
Since 2001, Thailand has been grappling with conflict around opposition by the country’s mainly urban-based elite and establishment circles to the election victories and popularity of business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. This opposition took issue with not only the government Thaksin led himself, but also those won and led by his political parties or kin after he was kicked out of office in the last military coup in 2006. In exile after being convicted of corruption in 2008, Thaksin is vilified by many for unprecedented levels of corruption and spending money to buy votes and keep politicians and others in his pocket — a plague the NCPO vows to work to put an end to. For his opponents, the goal was to keep Thaksin away from political power in any form or any through party.
This internecine chapter in Thai politics has seen street protests and violence, new elections, one failed election, and governments unseated through controversial court rulings. During this period, the divisions have deepened between the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” and the anti-Thaksin, pro-establishment “Yellow Shirts.”
In the six months prior to the May coup, anti-Thaksin groups led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former parliamentarian affiliated with the Yellow Shirts, set up street blockades and organized protests against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. After dissolving Parliament, she was banking on new elections to get a fresh mandate — as it had won the last several elections — but the March election was invalidated. Her ouster by a court ruling in early May did little to ease the protests, while the government’s ability to function was hampered by its extended tenure as a caretaker one unable to pass a new budget or approve major projects.
Against this backdrop, anti-Thaksin protesters revived a call to do away with elections and have a non-elected council undertake “reforms” before future polls can be held. Supporters of this idea argued that elections have been not working for democracy because Thaksin’s group would win an election again, while others balked at how an agenda pushing an unelected means to political change could gain credence in this day and age.
Public frustration at the stalemate was fast reaching a peak, with no institution, person or effective venue for dialogue in sight. By this time, at least 28 people had been killed and more than 800 injured since late 2013 amid sporadic grenade attacks that still remain largely unexplained.
Then, on May 22, the armed forces stepped in with the coup.
As of Monday, at least 454 people — including journalists, academics and political figures affiliated with the Thaksin group, as well independent activists — had been summoned to military camps and offices, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Of 178 individuals arrested, 113 had been arrested without prior public announcement. Further, 55 people have been arrested during public demonstrations and 10 for failing to report to the NCPO, the group continued.
NCPO spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak told journalists at a foreign press club discussion on June 11 that “not more than 20” individuals continue to be held. The NCPO has not released a full list of people held in custody, rights lawyers say.
“The reason there has been a relatively calm situation is because the coup is successful in creating a climate of fear,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto, Japan, told MintPress News. He is among scores of academics who have refused to heed the NCPO’s summons.
Criticism of the coup has been made illegal and gatherings of more than five people are banned. The Thai Constitution has been suspended. Journalists have been verbally accosted for asking tough questions.
Some protesters have been arrested for doing the three-finger salute taken from the film “The Hunger Games,” which has sprouted as a form of protest against the coup. Most recently, at least six people were arrested for “eating sandwiches for democracy” while reading George Orwell’s “1984.”
Still, early public protests have just about petered out, though some politicians allied with the Thaksin groups have reported the organization of “pro-democracy” movements. One such movement is the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy — the formation of which was announced Tuesday by Chaturong Ruangsuwan, the former head of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai (“For Thais”) Party and now a wanted politician.
Apart from the curtailment of the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, of particular concern to rights activists and lawyers is the military’s power — under legal provisions for martial law that date back to 1914 — to detain persons without charges for up to seven days.
Of equal concern is the junta’s use of the military courts to try civilians accused of violating its announcements and other offenses. Among these offenses is lèse majesté, or violating the majesty, which under normal circumstances carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail. A military court’s decision is final and not subject to appeal, though legal representation is allowed.
Activists welcome the fact that there has been no loss of life in custody and that the military has avoided using all available martial law powers. But the Thai National Human Rights Commission and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights are asking the NCPO to at least lift martial law, return the right to bail, and allow civilian courts to function like before.
“Even though martial law is imposed, human rights principles must still be respected,” explained Nirun, of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
By their own accounts, individuals released after heeding the NCPO summons have been asked to avoid political activities and to not leave the country without permission.
At a packed discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on June 11, Junta spokesman Weerachon questioned the use of the word “detention” to describe the holding of such individuals, saying they had been invited for “conversations” and asked “to put the country’s interest before their own interests.”
The word “detention” brings to mind dark cells and torture, he explained, but those asked to report “are given good food, have air conditioning,” and they are asked, “Is there anything else you need, apart from all kinds of facilities that make you feel the time is passing by so quick?”
Weerachon also took issue with calling this coup a coup. “The only thing that happened in Thailand is the change in national administration of the country in order to drive the country forward,” he said.
There is awareness that the junta can come down — when it chooses to — against debate or dissent.
“Instead of launching a crackdown, they issued orders to call anti-coup individuals and detain them. Their brand of reform is fraud. At the end of the day, the military has exploited Thaksin’s popularity to legitimize the coup,” added Professor Pavin. “But this will not work, as what the Thai people really want now is not cash and gifts, but freedom and election.”
For its part, the junta says it needs time. As Gen. Prayuth told the national television audience on May 30, “Please give us time to resolve the problems.”
The NCPO has said it will take a year and a half to reboot the political system. It has identified three phases: addressing security concerns in the first three months; setting up an interim government with a prime minister and Cabinet before the fiscal year starts on Oct. 1; establishing a legislative council, writing a new constitution (Thailand has had 18 constitutions, many of them after coups) and assembling a reform council.
A general election will follow that will be acceptable to groups of all political colors, the junta said, without giving a timetable.
How long the junta stays in power is something many Thais are watching in the post-coup scenario.
Among the lessons the military should learn from past coups — the country has had 19 since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 — is to keep its stay in power short, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in the Bangkok Post daily.
The best scenarios are for the junta to exit quickly and name a technocratic civilian — if unelected — government, and for the generals to avoid making themselves prime ministers, the political analyst explained.
When Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon became prime minister after reneging on his promise to avoid taking power after the 1991 coup, huge protests erupted and led to his ouster.
“When the going gets tough in military interventions all over the world — and it may well be the case later in Thailand — smart militaries find ways and contingencies to declare victory and head for the exit,” Thitinan continued.
This week, Thai media have been asking whether Gen. Prayuth will become prime minister after his scheduled retirement in September. Local media recently quoted Phaiboon Khumchaya, who oversees the NCPO’s legal and judicial affairs, as saying: “Gen. Prayuth will not retire unless order in the country is restored.”