Who Wins in Thailand’s Military Crackdown?

Thailand’s military gingerly but decisively declared martial law in the dawn hours of May 20, closing television stations and ordering Bangkok’s 10 million-odd citizens to stay calm. A military spokesman denied the crackdown was a coup as armed troops scattered throughout the city.

The military’s action was plainly taken reluctantly. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, the supreme commander of the Thai armed forces, both stated publicly last week that the military wanted nothing to do with a coup. The military earned widespread condemnation in May 2010 when, on orders of the then-ruling Democrat Party head Abhisit Vejjajiva, it attacked demonstrators to drive them out of the city following 10 weeks of protests over the ouster of an elected government, Some 90 people were killed, almost all of them civilian protesters.

The declaration was signed by Prayuth, who sounded his loudest warning last week that the country was veering toward civil war and in an official statement said the military might be forced to step in. Prayuth cited a 1914 law giving the military the authority to intervene during times of crisis.

“It’s a coup that doesn’t have to throw away the government because there is no government to kick out,” said a Thai businessman. “It will be interesting to see how they form the government under military control.”

The businessman’s question now is who, if anybody, the military will answer to. The pro-royalist forces have been seeking to lure the uniforms into a takeover ever since the protests began on the theory that, if forced into action, the military would ultimately back the royalists. However, it was unclear whether that was true. Prayuth worked closely with the deposed former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, during her two-plus years in office. He has played a careful game, endeavoring to remain neutral.

“He is actually playing his cards impeccably, and ultimately he is the only thing that keeps the country from going the way of Syria,” said an American banker and longtime Thailand resident. That may be a certain amount of hyperbole, but many believe the escalating violence had to be brought to an end before a major tragedy blew out.

There appears no possibility for compromise. The contempt of the ruling elites and the Bangkok bourgeoisie for the northerners has gone beyond rational, the banker said. Despite a widespread belief that a battle for primacy between the ailing king’s children is at stake, the situation boiled down to the fact that the circles the banker moves in see the Red Shirts as children and bumpkins incapable of fending for themselves, taken in by Thaksin, a charlatan and thug bent on establishing a dictatorship and stealing their wealth. Negotiations were out of the question, he continued. The elites want Thaksin dead or out of the country forever, along with his family.

Indeed, amid last week’s chaos, a cabal of members of the Thai Senate, most of whom are appointed by the royalty, proposed a framework that would give the opposition what it wants – an appointed government with the power to conduct political reforms that would stay in place until at some point elections would be called.

The chances of the Bangkok forces winning any nationwide election, however, are slim. They lost the 2001 election to the Thaksin and have lost every election since after courts deposed successive surrogate governments. That would make any subsequent election questionable if they know they can’t win. The rural northeasterners, empowered by a flock of social programs including low-cost health care, cheap loans and enterprise programs, have become increasingly sophisticated and are demanding a place in the political process.

Although Thaksin has been widely – and probably accurately – accused of corruption and arrogance, his rural supporters see themselves as empowered by his programs. They are not going to give that away to Bangkok’s patronizing elites.

Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch accused the military of pulling “a 100 year old law off the shelf that makes the civilian administration subordinate to the military, effectively rendering the executive, legislative and judicial branches powerless. The broad powers conferred on the military mean that there are no legal safeguards against rights violations and no remedies for any damage caused by the army.”

It’s interesting, though, that the military this time at least pulled a law off the shelf, however old, to justify its actions instead of simply staging an outright coup – which it has done 11 times since breaking the power of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

There were real concerns that the situation was becoming untenable, with forces aligned with the pro-royalist People’s Democratic Reform Committee, headed by Secretary General Suthep Thaugsuban, running wild through the city, forcing the closure of television stations and attempting to hunt down serving cabinet ministers, ostensibly to demand that they resign but raising questions over their personal safety.

Suthep himself led his followers to take over Government House, the prime minister’s offices. Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, the acting prime minister, and Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri were forced to hold meetings in undisclosed locations after protesters forced their way onto an Air Force base last week to disrupt them.

Infuriated Red Shirt protesters aligned with the government were said to be massing outside the city after having formed militias to attack the royalists. Police were refusing to arrest offenders who were staging individual attacks on rallies, with bombings, stabbings and occasional shootings. Hundreds have been injured over the past six months, with 27 killed so far.

The opposition protest began in November over an ill-considered amnesty bill that was designed to allow the fugitive Thaksin back into the country without serving a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power. The government has been paralyzed for months, since Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, recessed Parliament to prepare for Feb. 2 elections that were handicapped by the refusal of the opposition Democrats to participate, then later nullified by the courts.

The Constitutional Court last week ordered Yingluck, the nominal leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, to step down after charging her with abuse of power. Pheu Thai, expecting the court’s action, named Niwattumrong, the former commerce minister and a business associate of Thaksin, as caretaker prime minister.

Niwattumrong appeared about to be booted out of the premiership by the Thai Senate, which is regarded as favoring the elites. He refused demands to step down, however. In the meantime, fears were rising that Thaksin’s allies, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, would descend on Bangkok with vengeance in mind for what was universally regarded as a judicial coup in Yingluck’s removal.

On Monday, Niwattumrong insisted that his government wouldn’t resign. It remains to be seen if Prayuth and his troops back that government.