Banners unfurled near Bangkok’s Victory Monument proclaim that what Thailand needs most is unity for the sake of “nation, religion and King”. The message, part of the new military junta’s campaign to “return happiness to the people”, is backed by a programme of festivals featuring free food, orchestral music and young women in camouflage miniskirts.
“Foreign people don’t do coups but Thai people do because they want better politicians,” says Natt, a medical student scurrying past a poster in the pre-curfew throng. He hopes the officers who appeared on television three weeks ago to announce the military’s 12th successful putsch in 82 years will step aside as they have done before — but only once harmony has been restored. “A little time in the future, the army should stop ruling and create a new group of politicians, who can be peaceful like 10 years ago.”
Turning the clock back to a simpler age shorn of ideological disputes has emerged as the core goal of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader, who portrays himself as having reluctantly taken action to save a divided nation from itself. One senior politician opposed to the ousted government blames his own political class for forcing the military’s hand and likens it to a national “reset”.
This coup, though, shows signs of developing into something less neutral than that term implies: a conservative counter-revolution against forces assaulting the old paternalist certainties of southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Thailand now stands not so much at a crossroads as on the verge of a full-scale U-turn. With each day, the gap grows wider between its reputation for liberal openness and the military’s rule by arbitrary detention, censorship and diktat.
Critics say the generals and their allies have parlayed genuine concerns about the failings of Thailand’s shaky parliamentary system into a war on societal changes. Those shifts have consistently delivered governments not to the liking of Bangkok’s royalist, military, bureaucratic and business establishment. A campaign by coup supporters to curb the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister, is broadening into an effort to force the politically awakened rural Thais who support him — and civil rights campaigners who do not — to unlearn their new ideas and return this formerly feudal absolute monarchy to an age when everyone knew their place. “Certain groups in society have come to the conclusion that democracy is not going to suit them,” says an academic who, like many others, asks not to be named because the junta has outlawed criticism. “They’re unreconstructed. They think they have a natural right to rule.”
General Prayuth launched his putsch after more than six months of street protests and debilitating political crisis had left almost 30 people dead, the elected Puea Thai-led government paralysed and the economy pushed towards recession. The coup also came amid whispered talk about the succession to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the 86-year-old monarch who marked 68 years on the throne this week. A widespread theory is that some members of the establishment are uneasy about the prospect of Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince, becoming king, and favour instead the accession of Princess Sirindhorn, his sister. Strict lese-majestE laws that carry prison sentences of up to 15 years make open discussion of royal succession impossible.
Years of political turmoil have sapped Thailand’s growth rate, which is now consistently behind the pack of southeast Asian nations it once powered. Big infrastructure projects designed to tap Thailand’s potential as a regional hub have mostly stayed on the drawing board.
General Prayuth has said elections will not be held for at least a year, during which time the military will oversee the appointment of a government and the running of political reconciliation camps for opposing groups. The security forces have already raided homes, made scores of arrests and unearthed what they say are secret weapons stockpiles held by militant “redshirt” supporters of the ousted government. Thousands of troops and police have periodically flooded Bangkok’s streets to stifle scattered, peaceful and, until now, small-scale, flashmob-style demonstrations.
So far General Prayuth’s brand of autocracy has been more Singaporean than Syrian. Intimidation through the law - for example freezing critics’ financial assets - is preferred to torture chambers or shooting protesters. But rights groups says some activists are being held incommunicado, while the ban on dissent is as sweeping as in a totalitarian state. Academics are being summoned to answer for their opinions and demonstrators hauled off for making a three-fingered protest salute borrowed from the film The Hunger Games. The permanent secretary of the prime minister’s office took to Facebook to call for people to snitch on government officials who express ideas that were “unconstructive and threatening security”. The junta is stepping up its use of lese-majestE laws, with the threat that offenders will be tried by military tribunals.
The redshirt movement and other supporters of the ousted government are lying low. Some have gone into hiding, others into exile, and still more have kept quiet after being forced to sign gagging orders. Asked why they do not fight back, an otherwise measured member of the toppled administration offers a flash of anger — and an implicit warning of conflict to come. “If an insane person is holding a knife at your throat would you tell him he has no legitimacy to do that?” he says. “Now is not the time.”
Supporters of the coup skate over the repression and hail the stability that has returned after what they describe as the military’s light-touch intervention. A sign above the exit roadway at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport warns visitors that martial law is in force, yet it is possible to tour the city and its many tourist spots without seeing a soldier.
The stock market has rallied, a leading consumer confidence index is up for the first time in more than a year and the anxiety created by sporadic grenade attacks and gun battles during the anti-government demonstrations has largely disappeared. Even some Thais who consider themselves democrats and are instinctively uncomfortable with military intervention speak of their relief, given what they see as the lack of alternatives to an increasingly violent political battle. A song supposedly written by General Prayuth has attracted more than 190,000 hits on YouTube, concluding with the promise: “The land will be good soon. Happiness will return to Thailand.”
For coup opponents, the army is no neutral restorer of peace, but the central agent of a traditional elite whose interests it is now acting to protect. The junta’s plans for change are likely to prove the most sweeping gerrymandering yet of a system changed repeatedly to stifle the influence of elected representatives and bolster the power of the courts, regulators and appointed bodies of the great and the good. Asked what the military means when it speaks of re-form, a political analyst says: “I know exactly what they mean. It will mean some sort of rigging of the rules in favour of the political establishment.”
This great rupture in the former kingdom of Siam was triggered by Thaksin, a telecom and media plutocrat who more than a decade ago threw his resources into reinventing himself as a populist politician. Where weak, elite-focused coalition governments once fought for spoils between long periods of military rule, Mr Thaksin sought to cement his power by appealing to the previously marginalised, but electorally numerous, voters in the poorer north and northeast of the country. He offered subsidised health care, cheap credit and rice subsidies. The perception that he honoured his pledges made him the first prime minister to serve a full term — and to be re-elected with an increased majority. His run ended in 2006 when, amid a swirl of corruption and human rights abuse allegations, he was ousted in a coup. He fled the country to escape a corruption conviction but continued to exert strong influence on the governments of proxy parties elected after he left. Critics accused him of remotely running the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra, his sister who was prime minister until May, by phone.
Coup opponents say the military and the establishment behind it have drawn the wrong lessons from Thaksin’s rise and fall. They see him as a demon whose influence can be exorcised, rather than a cipher for change in a country where the World Bank says income inequality had grown to the highest levels in east Asia. “[Bangkokians] think he ... mesmerises the people,” says a businessman. “Get rid of him and the people will become nice and subservient again.”
This nostalgic view sits comfortably in a country where the “deep state” has grown increasingly gerontocratic. The 18 members of the privy council, an influential but opaque royal advisory body of former armed service chiefs, judges and politicians, have an average age of 78. General Prem Tinsulanonda, the 93-year-old president, spent his junior school years under an absolute monarchy that lasted until 1932. A prime minister from 1980 to 1988, General Prem has played a powerful role in moulding Thailand’s political landscape for decades.
If some in Thailand’s elite are rooted in the past, other parts of the country have moved on. Rural Thailand in particular is now richer, more aware of its power and less tolerant of being patronised by educated urbanites. At its worst, the elite attitude descends into grotesque characterisations of rural Thais as ignorant “buffaloes” who do not deserve the right to vote. Weluree Ditsayabut, the recently crowned Miss Universe Thailand, tearfully renounced her title this week after she was lambasted for social media comments in which she accused redshirt activists of dirtying the country’s soil and called for them to be executed.
The military’s answer to these profound schisms is to double down on what some see as an already overweening culture of patriotism. General Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he wants schools to “reinforce the values of ‘Being Thai’, national pride, and upholding the institution of the monarchy”.
The junta’s often guileless public statements suggest a degree of sincerity or even an idealistic, belief in its mission to protect Thailand. But when security forces talk of the need for critics to “have their attitude adjusted”, it shows the lack of any sense that other Thais might have a different vision, or that the country is being shaped by new and perhaps irresistible forces.
The suspicion is that the generals are trying to recreate a Thailand of their imagination, not deal with the country as it now exists. It is a misalignment that could make a sporadically violent struggle even more explosive.
As Natt, the student at Victory Monument, puts it ominously: “In my opinion, this isn’t finished. There will be more controversy - and more fighting.”
Economic policy: Junta battles own legacy and long neglect of investment
Thailand’s military junta has pledged to revive the country’s spluttering economy. But the generals are already grappling with fears about instability, unhelpful regional trends and doubts sparked by the legacy of their own history in power, writes Michael Peel.
The new rulers in Bangkok promised consumer-friendly policies after their May 22 coup but have yet to show how they will reverse the impact of a seven-month political crisis that has sent tourism numbers plunging and chilled private sector investment.
China Mobile’s deal this week to buy 18 per cent of True Corp, the Thai telecommunications company, was a vote of confidence of sorts. Yet, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta faces pressing decisions on how to direct public spending to renew decaying infrastructure that has left Thailand trailing regional peers.
“In the past 10 years, governments have failed to implement projects,” says one banker. “The point is: where is the vision to link Thailand with the rest of southeast Asia?”
A Thai stock market rally that drove the benchmark Set index up almost 5 per cent after the coup appeared to be finding its limit on Wednesday, as shares were 0.4 per cent down in afternoon trading. Figures from the government’s Board of Investment delivered another reality check this week, showing that the value of applications for foreign and domestic projects plunged 42 per cent to $9.5bn in the first five months of this year compared with the corresponding period last year.
The economy shrank 2.1 per cent quarter on quarter during the first three months of 2014, and could well go into recession in the second.
The junta has tried to lift the financial gloom of both the public and business by signalling transport investments, capping fuel prices and starting to pay billions of dollars owed to rice farmers under the ousted government’s botched subsidy scheme.
It says it wants to exploit closer economic integration between southeast Asian states, some of which have been taking business from Thailand’s flagship manufacturing sector.
But the military has also raised questions with some of its initial appointments ahead of the selection of a new government slated for later this year. General Prayuth has made himself chairman of the Board of Investment.
He has also appointed as junta economic adviser Pridiyathorn Devakula, a former central bank governor. He played a similar role after the coup in 2006 and upset foreign investors with what some saw as economically nationalist policies.
— Financial Times