Bangkok under the boot
More recently, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was due to retire in September, was less ambivalent about his intentions vis-à-vis ongoing strife in Bangkok. “This must be resolved swiftly before I retire,” he pointed out, “otherwise I won’t retire. I will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt.”
Ukraine and Egypt have held presidential elections in recent days, and although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty in both cases, neither nation is demonstrably worse off than Thailand in the wake of its latest military takeover, which unfolded last week with the declaration of martial law on Tuesday, followed two days later by the assumption of absolute power.
The initial military announcement that it was only taking charge of security defied belief, particularly in the absence of any indication that the caretaker Pheu Thai administration had requested an intervention. The army then made a show of banging heads together at a session of talks that Thailand’s political rivals were obliged to attend and their failure to resolve within hours disagreements that have divided the nation for nearly a decade and a half provided a cue for canceling the latest experiment in representative rule.
According to an electoral commissioner who attended this bizarre conclave, Prayuth at one point instructed the attendees: “Everyone must sit still.” The conclusive exchange apparently entailed the general asking the caretaker justice minister whether the government was willing to step aside. The latter replied: “As of this minute, the government will not resign.” Prayuth unhesitatingly responded: “So, as of this minute, I decide to seize ruling power.”
The political rivals attending the meeting mostly ended up in military custody, ostensibly “to give them time to think,” as did former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been dismissed earlier this month by the constitutional court alongside several of her ministers on the grounds of abuse of power. Since the turn of the century, when Yingluck’s elder brother, policeman-turned-businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister on the basis of an unequivocal popular mandate, political rivalries in Thailand have revolved around his broadly rural support base, which provides the Shinawatra forces with an entrenched majority, and a vociferously resentful urban elite.
Thaksin went into exile after he was overthrown in the 2006 military coup, shortly after scoring an even more decisive electoral victory. He is routinely accused of taking corruption to an unprecedented level and there is certainly evidence of rampant crony capitalism, as well as suspicions that Thaksin’s ambitions envisaged a long-term hold on power. Intriguingly, the authoritarian tendencies he displayed in unleashing bloody campaigns against drug dealers and extremists in the south are rarely highlighted by his opponents. They are not, however, the basis of his continuing popularity in the rural north, where he is seen as someone who humbly sought votes and then, unlike most other politicians, lived up to at least some of his promises after assuming power by extending health facilities, micro-loans and other tools for development to a hitherto neglected sector of society.
The latest bout of largely middle-class unrest in Bangkok followed an attempt by the Yingluck administration to push through an amnesty law that would have enabled Thaksin to return to Thailand, and it is telling, albeit not particularly surprising, that the protesters have been calling for an appointed, rather than an elected, government, with a number of them openly questioning the wisdom of one person, one vote and some advocating a return to the absolute monarchy that Thailand abandoned in 1932. Its experiments with democracy since then have been interrupted by at least a dozen military coups and the latest one gives every indication of having been carried out with a longer-term agenda in mind than the 2006 variant. Precisely what it may entail has not been spelt out. Tellingly, no election date has been announced.
The anti-Shinawatra protesters who have been rejoicing in the wake of the military takeover will no doubt be hoping that any form of polling can be postponed until some sort of method of subverting the popular will can be worked out. That won’t be easy to achieve. Opposition to the coup has been manifesting itself daily in defiance of military edicts and violent repression would only serve to exacerbate societal fractures. It is contended that these fractures are not restricted to civil society and that substantial sections of the military rank-and-file, unlike most senior officers, are inclined to sympathize with the pro-Thaksin forces. And although King Bhumibol Adulyadej has ostensibly endorsed Prayuth’s assumption of power, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is believed to be close to Thaksin.
“Few will speculate in public about the king’s future,” Joshua Kurlantzic wrote in the London Review of Books a few years ago, “but everyone tacitly admits that the country, which has muddled through so many crises, might collapse when he dies. According to one Thai legend, the Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782, will perish after its ninth monarch dies.”
Be that as it may, the more immediate danger is that of an extended period of military rule amid efforts to safeguard entrenched privileges that have been eroded by populism are ultimately incompatible with a modern democracy. It could be a while before Thailand emerges from its present phase of turmoil, but hopefully it will do so with the reinforced realization that autocracy isn’t a viable alternative to representative rule, however, flawed it may seem.
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