Thailand’s coup: brokered by the army and PDRC

While the tourists continue to flock to Thailand’s beaches, things can very quickly get ugly

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The coup in Thailand, launched two weeks ago, and the response to it have passed through several phases.

At first there was a sense of shock – no matter that the army had carried out at least 12 previous take-overs (experts argue about the precise total); people struggled to accept the generals really wanted the responsibility and challenge of running the country. Even those who had been calling for the army to step in could hardly believe it.

After a couple of days, this turned to seething anger. Small groups of protesters went face to face with the troops and yelled at them to go back to their barracks. They had struggled for democracy, they insisted, and the soldiers had no right to take it away.

Now the coup is going through a surreal phase. Anti-coup protesters have taken to demonstrating by making the three-fingered salute seen in The Hunger Games films, protesting against what they consider to be nothing short of tyranny. The army has said it may arrest anyone who makes the sign.

However the troops’ supporters, including newly-wed couples, have been posing with the soldiers or in front of their armoured vehicles. The junta has been organising concerts of military music and offering free hair-cuts and dessert to people.

“Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since 22 May, there is happiness,” claimed General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the junta.

Many of the reports about what has happened since the army seized control of the government, have focused on how calm things have been. There has been no bloodshed, tourists have not been much affected and in resorts such as Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui, the curfew has ended. The protesters who had brought parts of Bangkok to a halt have gone home and it would appear life is going on pretty much as before.

But that would ignore the significance of what took place two weeks ago.

The causes of Thailand’s political gridlock are complex. Anti-government protesters, who for months demanded the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, wanted to rid Thailand of her influence and that of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon and former premier who was forced out in a coup in 2006.

Many of Mr Thaksin’s supporters were working-class and lower middle-class Thais, especially in the north and north-east, who had benefited from his welfare policies and government loan schemes. In doing so, they had become increasingly empowered politically, and aware of their rights.

 

By contrast, those who opposed him were made up of a coalition of upper middle-class Bangkok residents, farmers from the south and powerful figures from the establishment that surrounds Thailand’s royal family. Having seen their efforts to win elections repeatedly defeated by the other side, they pushed for less democracy rather than more.

They denounced the polls as rigged – even though independent observers approved them – and called for appointed councils rather than a parliament. They also mocked many supporters of Mr Thaksin as “buffaloes” and uneducated country hicks, whose votes had been sold.

Many analysts also believe an important factor is a behind-the-scenes power struggle concerning the succession: Thailand’s largely admired but ailing monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is now aged 86.

The army initially said it was stepping in to help stop the violence that the political stand-off sparked. When it seized control of the government, it said it did so reluctantly and because the various factions could not agree to a compromise.

But what has become increasingly clear is that the army’s action has been not that of a neutral broker but rather to side with the anti-government protesters, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

Of the estimated 300 people who have been detained, for up to seven days at a time, many have been those associated with various Thaksin governments, or academics and critics. A handful of PDRC leaders were held, but only briefly.

Perhaps more tellingly, last week Gen Prayuth said there could be no elections for at least 15 months. In the meantime, an appointed cabinet would oversee unspecified reforms to create “an absolute democratic system that is acceptable to all sides”. His language echoed that used by many of the PDRC’s leaders.

But the people who oppose the coup are not going to go away, and neither are the so-called Red Shirts, who have largely supported Mr Thaksin and his sister. They know they have the electoral numbers on their side.

The danger of all this is that while the tourists continue to flock to Thailand’s beaches, things can very quickly get ugly. In 2010, when the Red Shirts were protesting against a non-Thaksin government that included a number of people who later formed the PDRC, more than 90 people were killed. Most were shot by the same troops of the Royal Thai Army that seized power two weeks ago. Nobody has ever been held accountable.

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