Saturday, May 31, 2014

Living in the Time of a Coup

Soldier in front of Democracy Monument
On May 22 the feeble remains of the elected government in Thailand were replaced by a military coup d'├ętat. While this had been a possibility since the anti-government street protests began seven months ago, it wasn't quite what I expected.  Where were the tanks, like in 2006?

It was a sneaky coup.  Two days earlier, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander of the Royal Thai Army, had declared martial law.  Large groups of opposing protesters -- Suthep's anti-government mob in the vicinity of Government House, and the pro-government Red Shirts south of the city -- were surrounded by troops.  Radio and TV stations were seized.  Two weeks before, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and several other ministers had been removed by a ruling of the Constitutional Court, and the fragments of a caretaker government were told to report to Prayuth. The general then ordered representatives of the warring factions to hold talks to settle their differences.  At the second meeting, after the Pheu Thai government refused to resign, Prayuth reportedly said: "Sorry, I must seize power."

This post will neither be a full journalistic report of the coup, the 18th in Thailand's modern history since 1932, nor will it be a critique: criticism of the military junta's actions is against their law and offenders are warned of severe consequences.  I write "their law" because it is not exactly clear what laws currently govern Thailand.  The 2007 constitution, written by the military junta that took control in a 2006 coup, was overturned by Prayuth's seizure of power.  Nevertheless, anyone with a gun is in charge now.

My first reaction, when I turned on my computer at dawn on the 20th to learn that martial law had been declared several hours earlier, was exhilaration.  Since I'd moved to Thailand in 2007, there had been two events on the horizon that promised excitement and adventure for an expat from a country where political passion had long since been tamed.  Discussion of the first event is strictly verboten.  The second event had been too long delayed.  Earlier in the year I wrote about endless street demonstrations, always expecting that a climax ("Armageddon") was near.  Suthep's mob tried to shut down Bangkok and had ultimately failed, although the carnivalesque closures of major intersections brought upset as well as entertainment.  Trying to mollify their demands, PM Yingluck resigned Parliament and called for new elections.  But Suthep's mob, seemingly protected by security forces, the courts and independent agencies like the Election Commission, blocked much voting and the results were nullified by a court ruling.

Protester at Victory Monument
At first it was amusing.  TV programs were replaced by the juntas slides,  indicating that soap operas, game shows, and the news had been put on hold because of the coup.  The soundtrack for the slides of ancient Thai patriotic music was almost hilarious.  The lack of news was unimportant since Facebook and Twitter went into overdrive. There was little immediate resistance.  Once the coup was announced, people in small numbers carrying signs mostly written in English ("NO COUP" and "FUCK THE COUP" were popular), gathered outside a McDonald's outlet in the shopping center of Bangkok, a cinema in the north end of the city, and around Victory Monument, a landmark erected in 1941 to commemorate the brief Thai victory in the Franco-Thai War the year before (gains were soon erased by war's end).  Strangely enough, supporters of the military gathered at Democracy Monument, a few miles west, which commemorates the coup of 1932 which established Thailand as a constitutional monarchy. Soldiers seemed careful not to overreact as they had in 2010 when over 90 people were killed and 1,000 injured, most of them red shirts, as a two-month demonstration was crushed by the military at the orders of then PM Abhisit and his 2nd in command, Suthep.

Certainly many people in Bangkok were happy that the military had intervened after months of irreconcilable disagreement. While the violence during that time had been small compared to 2010, committed mostly by unknown forces, there was the ever-present threat of civil war if the elected government was overthrown.  No one, inside or outside of Thailand, could see any possibility of resolution.  The reds wanted the results of elections to be honored by the losers (since their candidates had won every election for over a dozen years) while the yellows (Suthep and all who since 2005 had opposed the Thaksin Shinawatra "regime") felt that elections in Thailand were flawed and resulted in a majoritarianism that trampled on the rights of the elite minority that hated him.  My heart had been with the majority through I felt sad for the whistle-blowing demonstrator who seemed clueless about the consequences of toppling Yingluck.

The protesters at Suthep's gatherings and those against the coup at McDonald's and Victory Monument look much the same.  It does seem as if women are dominant at both.  Both groups claim to love the King who apparently signed off on Prayuth's coup (though HM was not pictured).  Both sides could also be called nationalists.  In many respects it's a continuation of the long struggle of people in the hinterland against domination by elites in the capital, a 100-year-history told in Charles Keyes' excellent new book Finding Their Voice: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State.  While there was some agreement on decentralization, which could result in the election rather than appointment of provincial governors, this is all moot now after the coup.

After a week, the coup has taken its toll.  While not as dramatic as tanks rolling down the main boulevards, the resolve of the general is firm.  The first curfew from 10 pm to 5 am has been modified to midnight until 4 in the morning.  Each night Nan had to rush after leaving work early to get the last transportation home. Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists have been detained and those already released say nothing.  Pressure against resistance has been even stronger, and less publicized, in the provinces.  The junta threatened to curtail social media and Facebook was down for an hour the other day.  I've lowered my profile on both Twitter and Facebook, trying to "hold my tongue," not always with success.  I've stopped following and even de-friended some of the most vocal opponents of the coup, many of whom live outside the Kingdom, out of fear that I might find myself in the junta's sights.

Last night the general spoke to the nation on TV.  He only wanted a return of happiness, he said. Though democracy was always the goal (under the King as the head of state as it says in all constitutions), it was necessary to undertake reforms before elections could return.  This sounded remarkably like Suthep's goal which he announced nightly during his half-year campaign to eradicate the Thaksin regime from Thailand.  Anyone connected to or having publicly favored Thaksin is now undergoing treatment at a series of "reconciliation" camps designed to change their attitude.  Signs at red shirt villages in Isan, erected after the massacres of 2010,  have been taken down.  School administrators have been told to keep an eye on their teachers and students for any pro-Thaksin, anti-coup sentiments.  Those arrested will be jailed and judged by military courts.

My fears may be groundless but it's prudent to be careful. Outside on the streets in my neighborhood nothing is changed. In Siam at the shopping malls all goes on as usual.  Tourists at Thailand's many beaches notice nothing different.  This is a "bloodless" and peaceful coup.  Six months of protests followed by a military takeover have taken their toll, however, and financial prophets predicted a rocky road for Thailand's economic future.  Over 50 governments have posted warnings to travellers about visiting one of the world's most popular vacation destinations.  For many, their travel insurance is invalid where there has been a coup d'├ętat.  But now the military is in firm control and the streets are quiet.  There is no civil war but there is also no democracy, not without elections and an agreement by all that the results will be accepted.  That has rarely occurred in Thailand since that first coup in 1932.  Friends ask if I'm worried or scared.  The answer is no. The military was in charge when I arrived here in August of 2007 and I barely noticed (except when a friend voted in the referendum on the junta's constitution).  It's hard to believe that the government's supporters and the large network of red shirts have given up.  But for now, there's an uneasy peace.

This soldier's tears were seen widely on social media after he was shouted at by angry anti-coup demonstrators at McDonald's.  Many soldiers come from poor villages in the north and northeast and now find themselves on the other side from their rural neighbors and kinsmen.

3 comments:

Ed Ward said...

Best exposition of the situation I've read so far. Pretty confusing, but then, so is the situation!

Anonymous said...

VERY glad to see you back in the journalistic saddle, and to hear you and Nan are both OK. Thanks for your insightful commentaries. 'Wish we could share a meal!

Richard Tulloch said...

I found your blog through your post about our friend Michael.

As one who lived and worked in Bangkok in the 1980s (drama consultant at Thammasat University) I've viewed subsequent Thai politics with dismay, as have the friends and former students I've kept in touch with there.

The vicious sectarianism we see on our TV screens is so at odds with the gentle, friendly character of the Thai people that we know.

It seems the solution, if there is one, is for the losers of any election, however flawed they may feel the process to have been, to ACCEPT the result and to work by other means to win enough people over to have success in the next election.

Please keep up your reports and analysis of the situation as you see it.