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Thailand’s Coup with a Difference

By Todd Crowell

SNA (Tokyo) — I received the news in a telephone call from Japan, which is two hours ahead of Thailand: “There’s been a coup!” my wife exclaimed after answering the phone. “Where”? I asked stupidly. “Here in Thailand.” We turned on the television to get more news, but every channel was just showing file footage of the King.

That is how I came to learn of the coup d’etat in 2006 that toppled the regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Eight years later, the Royal Army has seized power again, for the umpteenth time since the country ended the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The 2006 coup might be described as a “soft” coup. Only about half a dozen close aides to the deposed Thaksin were detained. Thaksin himself was outside of the country addressing the UN General Assembly and has remained in exile. The current coup seems to be much “harder.” As of this writing some 250 people, including the former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, have been detained.

This time the military government of General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has spread its net far wider, not just detaining members of the cabinet and the Thaksin family, but retired generals thought to be sympathetic to the government and, more ominously, opinion leaders like academics and some journalists who have written in support of democracy in Thailand.

The coup leaders also detained some prominent “yellow shirt” opponents of the government, including its main protest leader, Suthep Thaungsuban, but later released them. The generals have darkly warned that more detentions are possible if there is continuing resistance to the new junta.

The current coup seems to have been planned more carefully than the earlier one. It came in stages, with the army first declaring martial law and then two days later seizing the reins of the government. Certain specified broadcasters were shut down during the short martial law under orders which were later extended to most of the independent stations.

In 2006 the “red shirt” movement did not exist. There had been large-scale anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok by Thaksin opponents who would later be called the yellow shirts. At the time though, there was no need for a pro-Thaksin movement as he was in charge of the government.

Since then the red shirt movement has expanded enormously, made up predominantly of the underclass of Thais from the country’s north and northeast who have benefitted from Thaksin’s populist policies. They put thousands of supporters on the streets and occupied central Bangkok in 2010 in an episode of unrest that resulted in ninety protestors being killed — mostly at the hands of the army.

Thailand’s is a conscript army, and many of the soldiers come from the parts of the country and social strata that have proved to be the Thaksin red shirt base.

After the 2006 coup, the army operated behind a civilian front, talked a lot about reforming the constitution, and held out the prospect of a return to democracy. Prayuth has, for the moment, named himself as prime minister, and he has said the junta will remain in power “indefinitely.” He seems more interested in some kind of long-term reconciliation than in restoring democracy any time soon.

This may be inevitable considering Thailand’s difficult recent history with elections. Thailand doesn’t need to restore democracy per se; it needs to develop a civil society in which elections count, and where the results are accepted by the country, both by the winners and the losers. That hasn’t been the case in Thailand for a long time.

Increasingly, the new Thai military junta is looking more and more like the one that ruled Myanmar for years. Its official title — the National Council for Peace and Order — even seems to echo the name the Burmese generals picked for themselves in 1988: State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

The royal succession is eight years closer than it was in 2006, and Thailand is eight years closer to a new crisis on top of a crisis. In that earlier coup the leader of the action was photographed prostrating himself before the monarch. So far, General Prayuth has not been seen with the King, although he claims that the coup has the King’s support.

In 2006 the King was still relatively healthy. Now 86, it has been many years since he was well enough to assert any influence. His likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not popular; his sister Crown Princess Maha is popular, but may find it difficult to win army support for a queen-regnant. Thailand hasn’t yet had a female ruler from the current Chakri dynasty line that stretches back more than two hundred years.

The economy is weaker it was in 2006. Many in the business community welcomed the coup as providing needed stability. But eight years of yellow shirt versus red shirt strife have taken their toll. Many Japanese businessmen, for example, remember being left stranded in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts stormed and shut down the two main airports in Bangkok.

The critical tourist industry has had to operate against the backdrop of violence, often in the center of the capital that is home to many expats. Numerous travel advisories issued by various foreign governments have discouraged tourism. In this instance some countries have gone beyond merely advising caution and unnecessary trips to Thailand to flatly advising their citizens to stay away.

One other difference. The 2006 coup was seen by everyone to be a major failure, not so much in terms of individual oppression, but especially in relation to its maladministration of the government. Everyone on all sides was happy to see it go. It remains to be seen whether this new crew will be any better. People are hoping so, but not counting on it.

Todd Crowell worked for Thailand-based Asia Times from 2006-2007. He is the author of Far From Worries: a Year in the King’s Town. He is currently based in Tokyo and is a contributing writer to the Shingetsu News Agency.