Three days after the military coup instigated by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the situation in Bangkok remains ever so tense, with confrontations flaring between the military and growing numbers of protesters on the streets.
On May 22, Prayuth staged the 19th military coup – 12 of them successful – since Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932. The reason this time was supposedly to restore peace and order after long months of relentless protest. At least 155 people have been arrested and members of the media were ordered to report to the military at 2 pm on May 26.
Ominously, this does not look like the coups of the past. In the aftermath, the military has begun a process of establishing itself as the sole sovereign of the Thai nation and looks as if it means to stay there for a long time. Borders have been closed amid a dramatic clampdown.
Prayuth has ordered the dissolution of the Senate, taking full control over the executive, legislative and judicial institutions, and transferring the police chief and the head of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) to inactive positions and appointing himself interim prime minister.
Simultaneously, Prayuth has issued an order calling 35 politicians, academics, writers and political activists to report to the authority. This is the first time that academics have been forced to surrender themselves and to curtail their freedom of expression. The order specified that the deadline for the summons was 4 pm May 24. Failure to report to the authority makes a person liable to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of 40,000 baht.
Among the academics being intimidated by the military’s order are:
- Worachet Pakeerut and Sawatree Suksri, from Khana Nitirat, a group of progressive legal academics at Thammasat University;
- Philosopher Surapot Thaweesak;
- Historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul; and,
- Communications scholar Suda Rangkupan.
My name is also included in the list and I am the only summoned academic working overseas—at Kyoto University. I have made my position clear: I will not return to Thailand and have rejected the order of the coup leaders. I have denied the legitimacy of the coup, which has once again wrecked democratic institutions. Thailand is now being transformed into a military state. Even the Myanmar government, previously under an entrenched military rule, has voiced its disappointment at the setback of Thai democracy.
The list also includes three former political prisoners who were accused of violating Article 112 and were then pardoned and exonerated. They are Suraphak Phuchaisaeng, Surachai Danwattananusorn, and Thantawut Taweewarodomkul. Thanapol Eawsakul, writer and editor of Same Sky magazine, who had been arrested the prior day during a peaceful protest, is also on the list. Two writers, Nithiwat Wannasiri and Wat Wanlayankul, are also included on the list.
Outspoken journalist for the Nation newspaper, Pravit Rojanaphruk, was the person to receive the additional summons and turned himself in just this morning.
Prior to the order that led to the detention of some academics, a group of international scholars from around the world wrote an open letter to General Prayuth, expressing their grave concern at the coup and urged the coup makers to iimmediately return to constitutional rule by a civilian government.
Once again, I signed this letter together with 26 prominent scholars of Thai studies, including Professor Thongchai Winichakul from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a former president of the Association for Asian Studies.
The curbing of academic freedom has also prompted the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to issue a statement condemning the latest attempt to silence Thai academics. In its statement, AHRC “unequivocally condemns the coup and wishes to express grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights protections it has engendered. The AHRC calls on the National Peace and Order Maintenance Council to immediately release all citizens being arbitrarily detained without charge and to cease creating public terror by issuing blanket summons to report to the military.”
Meanwhile, the battle on the streets of Bangkok has been escalating to the point that minor clashes have occurred between unarmed protesters and soldiers. Within 24 hours after the coup, pro-democracy groups gathered together at various locations in the Thai capital and in many provinces including Chiang Mai, defying the martial law that prohibits anti-coup activities. A large number of peaceful protesters have been arrested. They have been detained in unknown locations.
But until now, Prayuth has not been granted an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Rumors circulated in Bangkok that he was refused a meeting with the King. An endorsement from the monarchy is essential as part of legitimizing the coup. Almost all coups in the past were blessed by the King, including the previous one in 2006 that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. The lack of apparent support from the monarchy has challenged the status of the coup makers.
Yet, even if the coup will eventually be endorsed by the King, this will not deny the reality that anti-coup protests will continue and proliferate. This will likely draw more pro-democracy supporters to come out in full force against the military regime. Many fear that this, sadly, could lead to a new round of political violence.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.