The Bangkok Coup: Shock and Awe

With the dust now settling from Thailand’s 13th coup, unless outraged citizens take to the streets again to oust the military, as they have in the past, it is quite likely that Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and the army will be around a lot longer than people think.

Right now, both sides of the long-running political chaos that has kept Thailand roiled for eight years are hunkered down and won’t start anything anytime soon. It could be a period of extended if sullen calm.

It is widely believed that the military isn’t going anywhere until after King Bhumibol Adulyadej has died and his wastrel son, Vajiralongkorn, is installed on the throne so that they can keep an eye on him. While the 89-year-old king is frail, it appears he will be around for a while.

Vajiralongkorn is considered to be too close to the Bangkok elite’s bête noire, Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister deposed in 2006, who has managed to largely dominate the political process from outside the country through surrogate governments ever since. Neither the military nor the elites want Thaksin anywhere near to the possibility of controlling the almost mystical power and influence of the throne, especially with what is viewed as a malleable monarch.

So far, as far as coups go, Prayuth has hardly put a foot wrong since the military took over on May 22, in the eyes of business interests in Bangkok, although not of opponents. He took to national television last week to outline a broad-based economic development plan and said an interim government would be in place by August.

“Prayuth is calling all the shots, the country is in his hands, I don’t think he is a proxy of the [Bangkok elite] Yellow Shirts,” a western banker said. “He probably planned this for several months. It was extraordinary. None of this got out. It was clockwork precision. What he has done to date has left everybody in shock and awe.”

In what might be more Clockwork Orange than clockwork precision, the military has mounted an extensive and sometimes laughable propaganda campaign and has cracked down on all forms of media, imposing widespread censorship and other restrictions on broadcast, print, and electronic media. Editors have been called in and told to keep their criticism to a minimum. Rallies have been banned for both the Red Shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the royalist People’s Democratic Reform Committee.

As many 180,000 Cambodians are said to have fled over the border back into their own country out of a fear of a crackdown on illegal workers, according to news agencies, with the Cambodian government protesting that the Thai military had forced them over the border.

In Bangkok, the streets have been clear of protesters and soldiers alike although one longtime political analyst in Bangkok characterized the military intervention as “enforced quiescence. This is basically a sit down and shut the fuck up coup. It is much more totalitarian in implementation than we have seen in other coups. They are trying to go after the last 5-10 percent of resistance. They are scouring the Internet, looking for anyone who says anything, they are continuing to call in people.”

So far, at least 300 people have been called in from both factions, although they apparently have been well treated and told to, as the source said, sit down and shut up or else.

In what has been characterized as a genius move, the military agreed to foot the bill for free-to-air television of all 64 World Cup matches in a county mad for football. Since the games occur in the middle of the night on the other side of the world, that should keep a great many people up at night and sleeping during the day through mid-July when they could be plotting.

In addition, the decision to fund the equivalent of US$2.5 billion to pay off rice farmers for a disastrous rice pledging scheme created by the Thaksin forces to pay farmers as much as 50 percent over world prices has mollified tens of thousands of rice farmers. In another move that has resounded well beyond the corporate boardrooms, the military ordered state-owned Thai Airway International to scrap the free-flight allowance of its 15 board members, which is expected to save roughly Bt10 million a year.

“My housekeeper is a Red Shirt and she thinks this was a fantastic thing,” a western businessman told Asia Sentinel.

“This is the crudest form of populism adopted by the junta,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an academic now in exile in Japan with a warrant on his head. “Spending big sums of money on some unnecessary infrastructure projects, giving gifts to the people in the form of free television, movies, free rice, etc., will not help in terms of raising confidence among investors.”

From there it gets a little harder. Despite protestations that the military takeover was evenhanded, disposing of both the rioting factions led by southern Thailand strongman Suthep Thaugsuban and followers of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, it was less even-handed than it looks.

While both sides were brought in for questioning, shortly afterward, said a well-wired Bangkok source, Suthep and his lieutenants were seen celebrating in a French restaurant while members of the Red Shirt brigades were running for cover in Cambodia or back in the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand, where about a third of the country reside.

“It is pretty clear that what is going on is leading toward the outcome that the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and Suthep wanted,” the source said. “There will be an appointed Thai government, a ‘reform process’ controlled by the military and the elites, leading someday to an election. The big question is if there is an election, will that be part of the reform process, or will they figure out a way to stack the deck?”

In his speech, Prayuth said an election would be held within a year. But since Thaksin was elected in 2001, through the coup that ejected him in 2006 and the subsequent elections of three surrogate governments, the Thaksin forces have won handily. The luckless Democrat Party, which represents mainly the Bangkok middle class and opposition leader Suthep’s base in southern Thailand, has been unable to compete. It appears certain that no matter what populist moves are made, the Thaksin forces would win another one. It will take a while to engineer some way to keep the north and northeast in line.

“I believe the army is playing this one very smart,” said a western resident in a northeastern city. “Its populist measures are very similar to Thaksin’s and Prayuth has the luxury of being able to implement them at will without a pesky parliament to nag him. Very few Thais care about democracy out of ideology. They loved Thaksin because he shared the wealth a little outside Bangkok, which the Democrats never did, and that’s the only reason they wanted to keep them out of power by democratic means, the only way they could do it.”

As long as Prayuth sticks to the same formula, and as long as the oligarchs and big business are still too intimidated to oppose him, if he doesn’t stack the interim government with deeply despised leaders like Suthep and former Democrat Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, he could survive indefinitely, the source said.

In the meantime, the army is energetically going about making fundamental changes in the country, said a western banker with 30 years’ experience in Thailand. Most of Prayuth’s nationally televised speech June 13 was devoted to economic issues, pushing alternative energy, seeking to improve vocational education and other subjects. As he spoke, behind him was the backdrop of a slogan in Thai encompassing the usual trinity – the king, the Buddhist religion and the nation – with a fourth added for the first time: the people.

The military is moving deeper and deeper into the corporate sector. Pranpree Bahiddha-Nukara, a deputy Pheu Thai Party leader, resigned, probably under pressure, as board chairman of the state-owned PTT Plc, the country’s oil and gas monopoly. Other state-owned enterprises are likely to see similar changes, said a top official at a major domestic bank who asked not to be identified. That is likely to include the gas pipeline complex from the Gulf of Thailand.

However, these are Thai generals running the show. And other than Prayuth, who is regarded as intelligent and well-grounded, generals, and especially Thai generals, don’t inspire a lot of long-term confidence for their ability to run an economy, or even an army. Generals generally are not equipped to run economies. Thai generals are an exceedingly political bunch themselves. Probably international investors ought to remember that.