Thai Coup: Even-Handed or Long-Term?

From the time the Democrat Party walked out of Thailand’s Parliament last November, the Bangkok-based opposition to the Pheu Thai government has seen an army coup as an integral part of the endgame that would get rid of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s political machine once and for all.

The supposition was that the military would fall immediately in line with big business, the opposition and royalist insiders and that the city-wide demonstrations that began six months ago would be the catalyst needed to bring out the uniforms. Now, however, after Thursday’s coup the protest leaders have been rounded up, along with pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” leaders and political figures on both sides of the divide. On Saturday, the situation started to assume the proportions of a grim major crackdown, with academics being called in and warning issued to the press.

Roadblocks have been set up on major roads leading to Bangkok from the north and east of the country, where Thaksin’s enraged followers have denounced the coup. As many as 200 bunkers dot the city, filled with army personnel tasked with keeping the peace. Vast military supplies have been confiscated from both sides. An uneasy peace prevails – for now.

Business OK with it

However that works out, the Bangkok business community has greeted the takeover with a resounding cheer.

"The first reaction has been favorable as the business community thinks there will now be an effective government,” a Thai banker and member of the elite establishment told Asia Sentinel. “The new budget, which begins from October, will be prepared and passed before the end of September.”

That may be a blinkered view. The stock market fell a full 2 percent in the wake of the coup, which started as a declaration of martial law and two days later glissaded upward into the country’s 12th coup. Many in the business community remarkably continue, after more than a decade of truculent opposition from the provinces, to believe the Red Shirt movement will simply fade away without Thaksin. He is already in self-exile and the anti-Thaksin forces hope the army boots all his relatives out of the country also.

“The Red-Shirt movement is a paid agency of Thaksin and once the funds dry out it will not be significant,” the banker said. “In the last general election which was declared void, the Pheu Thai Party received much less than half of the total votes and without populist policy its influence will further decline.”

Never mind that the last general election was rendered meaningless when the opposition boycotted it and forced the closure of polling stations in some pro-Pheu Thai areas through the threat of violence.

In any case, the banker is right about one thing – government has been paralyzed since last November, when then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s 46-year-old sister, dissolved parliament to make way for the snap elections on Feb. 2. Yingluck, who was booted out by a pro-opposition court ruling in early May, is among as many as 150 political figures summoned by the military, including many prominent Democrats. Her status is unclear although she is banned from leaving the country.

A massive and badly needed plan to spend Bt2 trillion (US$61.3 billion) by 2020 to build an integrated transport system was also nullified by the courts despite the fact that China and Thailand’s neighboring countries are awaiting it. Without a parliament to act, according to a Thai businessman, government has largely come to a stop for the past six months except for routine services.

Balanced approach

So far the army is trying to appear even handed. It has efficiently rounded up as many leaders as possible, including Suthep Thaugsuban, the rogue politician leading the opposition People's Democratic Reform Committee, and prime figures in the main Red Shirt body, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. According to a resident near the Malaysian border, the borders also have been sealed to make sure nobody flees the country.

Army chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is due to retire from the military in September, named himself prime minister after calling both sides to negotiations on a military base. Significantly, Prayuth and his fellow officers posed for photos in front of a poster describing the army creed rather than a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, which analysts and tea leaf readers described as a signal that the army isn’t making common cause with the royalists. Prayuth and his fellow officers haven’t been to the palace – yet – to ask for the ailing king’s benediction.

The army seems to be playing its own game for now and not aligning itself with either side. That is both good and bad. The military may appear neutral, but that could mean they are intent on running the country themselves for some time. The coup is also a stark reminder that the army has been the most potent non-royal institution in the country since it ended the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The current round of crisis began when the military overthrew Thaksin in its last coup, in 2006. It was the military that knocked heads in 2008 and ordered a coalition of splinter parties to give the Democrats a ruling majority, delivering up Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister and the thuggish Suthep as his deputy, which did nothing but inflame the working classes in and around Bangkok and in the North and East of the country.

In May 2010, the army did most of the shooting that left 90 people dead, most of them protesters, and put an end to an unruly 10-week Red Shirt encampment in the center of Bangkok that was attempting to bring down Abhisit’s government. After that the army went back to barracks and stayed there until Thursday as Yingluck sought good relations after she became prime minister in 2011. By most accounts she got on well with Prayuth and other army figures, which was made easier by allocating billions for military hardware. She even took up the defense minister’s post in 2013 in order to streamline relations with the brass.

Well organized

“We were all taken by surprise by the coup,” said a US businessman in Bangkok. “But now that [Prayuth] has taken the plunge, it seems to have been well planned in advance, and is being executed smoothly and well.”

“I take some hope from the fact that it took so long for the army to do this,” said a longtime Bangkok political observer. “Analysts explain this as the army recognizing how badly it cocked things up after the 2006 coup, but I think Prayuth has more brains than a lot of people give him credit for. He saw that Suthep’s anti-democracy movement was a complete failure outside Bangkok and his own empire in the South, even after the collapse of the rice pledging scheme (or scam, as you believe). So it was left to the courts to find a way to establish the dictatorship the royalists and big business want.”

None of this points to a smooth interregnum while Prayuth works to restore democracy – if indeed he chooses to do so. By some estimates, it could take two years before the coup can be reversed, much to the pubic dismay of western governments including the United States, and human rights groups.

In the meantime, the buffalo in the room, as they say in Bangkok, is Isaan – the country’s northeast -- and the North, where the Thaksin forces are strongest because of the social uplift programs put in place by his original Thai Rak Thai government between his election in 2001 and his ouster in 2006 and because of his ancestral ties to the city of Chiang Mai.

The conscripts who make up the lower ranks of the military are largely drawn from these rural areas and they are going to be asked to keep Thakin’s pro-democracy followers at bay. There were rumors Thursday – so far unconfirmed – that Prayuth’s hand was forced by reports of dissident army units outside Bangkok massing for revolt.

“I think this is going to be a much more difficult coup to control and a much more difficult situation in Thailand,” said Jim Walker, the head of the Hong Kong-based Asianomics financial advisory firm, which deals extensively in Thai research. “I really can’t see any easy way out for this one because any election that is held will reelect Thaksin supported parties. That won’t be acceptable to the Bangkok elite or the military or, it seems, the queen. We are in for a long struggle in Thailand. It is better to exit positions. Sell the baht.”

That might be how this all ends, said a western observer. “The military will install some higher-up from the Privy Council as prime minister/dictator/junta leader, who will enjoy broad support because of the backing of the Palace. The pro-democracy movement will fall by the wayside for a few years, then flare up again as rural people see their standards of living drop to where they were before while the newly emerging democracies of Indonesia, the Philippines and possibly Myanmar prosper at Thailand’s expense.”