Thailand’s Army Tears Up the Script

There is a script for Thai coups: a day or two of shock and awe, seizure of television stations, token tanks on the streets — and then swift international reassurance, a plausible interim prime minister, an appointed national assembly, a committee to draft a new constitution and promises to hold elections within a year.

The 2006 coup followed the script almost perfectly, but still ended in farce: The influence of the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was far from removed; indeed, pro-Thaksin parties won the first post-coup election, and the one after that.

The leaders of the May 22 coup are not sticking to the 1991 or 2006 scripts. For one thing, their seizure of power was prefaced, two days beforehand, by a declaration of martial law and demands that the warring political factions attend negotiations hosted by the army — accompanied by assurances that this was not a coup. When those talks failed to reach agreement, the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, told shocked politicians that he was seizing power and arresting them. Whether this sequence of events reflected a cunning plan or a fit of pique on his part remains unclear.

Thailand’s Army Tears Up the ScriptNo interim constitution has yet been proposed — though Thailand has drawers full of such documents from earlier coups, ready to be recycled. When royal endorsement of the army’s intervention was finally granted, four days later, it took the unusual form of a military-style ceremony. There was no visit to the palace, and the customary pictures of the king and queen were nowhere to be seen.

General Prayuth has appointed himself interim prime minister and shows no sign of handing over power to a more neutral figure. Asked by reporters on Monday about the timeline for future elections, he abruptly quit the stage without responding. His staff later summoned the reporters to be reprimanded for asking “inappropriate” questions.

The mass summonses issued by the National Council for Peace and Order (as the junta now calls itself in English; the words “and order” are absent in the softer Thai version) asking more than 300 people — including politicians from the former government, protest leaders, critical academics, journalists and former political prisoners already released or royally pardoned — to turn themselves over to the military are an alarming move. The brief arbitrary detention of the wife, son and daughter of a current lèse-majesté defendant was especially troubling. University presidents have been told to bring dissident lecturers and protesting students into line. The junta has announced that those charged with certain political offenses will henceforth be dealt with by military courts.

Such attempts to create a climate of fear have no place, given Thailand’s long democratic tradition. The harsh media clampdown, including the blocking of international TV news channels, and the ban on criticizing the junta are missteps in a country where smartphones are increasingly ubiquitous and only fantasists would believe they can control access to information. All these moves suggest that the Thai military remains wedded to an outdated anti-Communist mind-set, believing that those who oppose the army are a small minority of subversives.

The junta’s pledge to overhaul Thailand’s political system sounds ominously like a call for “reform before election,” a slogan for the past few months of the anti-government protesters from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (P.D.R.C.). This suggests that the military’s idea of a “genuine democracy” involves the creation of an unelected assembly and a reduction of the role of elected politicians.

Such a rollback of the democratic order might be good news for the royalist elite and their middle-class supporters, primarily in Bangkok and the upper south of the country, but will alarm voters in the rest of Thailand, most of whom have voted consistently for pro-Thaksin parties in every election since 2001. The elite has responded by staging two military coups against the Shinawatra clan, not to mention numerous legal challenges and backdoor maneuvers, including the judicial ouster of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from the premiership earlier this month.

If the army continues to parrot the talking points of the P.D.R.C. demonstrators who engineered the political vacuum into which the military has stepped, it will cross a dangerous line. After the army shot protesters in 1992, a penitent high command amended its longstanding motto “For the Nation, Religions, King,” adding the words “and People.” But Thailand’s people are now terribly polarized, and bridge-building is urgently needed. For every Bangkokian cheering the coup, there are at least two Northeasterners looking on in horror.

Siding with the people means listening to all sides. To preserve what remains of the army’s legitimacy, General Prayuth needs to call a halt to highhanded measures to curb dissent, and to create broad, inclusive platforms for a reasoned debate about Thailand’s future direction. Otherwise, the regime’s positive goals of ensuring national peace are bound to fall flat.

So far, the junta seems to have drawn the wrong lessons from the 2006 coup, which failed because it was an ill-conceived attempt to change Thailand’s political landscape: The goal was beyond the capacity of the coup makers. Democracy can always be improved, but in a society with Thailand’s traditions of openness and popular participation, it cannot be reversed.

The 2006 coup did not fail because the generals were not tough enough. Acting aggressively is always a poor way to win people over, not least in Thailand; it will not work now.

How to proceed? Thailand needs a timetable for a return to political normalcy. These arbitrary detentions and the ghastly sequence of draconian junta pronouncements — which would be laughable if they were not so serious — must end. Discussions about political reform should not be monopolized by conservatives, and any major changes proposed should be ratified by a popular referendum.

Unless he reverses his present course, General Prayuth might as well order military bases around the country to remove those recently added words “and People” from their gateposts. That would be a dark moment in the history of the Royal Thai Army, and a darker one still in the history of Thailand.

Duncan McCargo is a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University.

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