Thailand’s twelfth military coup

Democracy is meaningless when its outcome doesn't suit the ruling class.

At 4.32pm local time on Thursday 22 May, the army moved to overthrow Thailand’s democratically-elected government and establish military rule. The leaders of the Red Shirt movement, which supports the government and fought successfully to re-establish democracy after Thailand’s last military coup, have been arrested in an attempt to stop the process repeating itself.

At first, the military claimed that it was merely ‘restoring order’ to make it possible for the present government to carry out its functions, but it very rapidly became clear that this was not the situation at all. The coup took place at a meeting between coup leader, General Prayuth, and government representatives:

According to local media, after a few hours of heated negotiations, General Prayuth asked justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri whether his interim government was prepared to resign. Upon being told, ‘As of this minute, the government will not resign,’ Prayuth reportedly replied, ‘Then, as of this minute, I have decided to seize power.’ For a few seconds, some of those present thought the 60-year-old was jesting. He was not.” (‘Bitter and on the run, Thailand’s Red Shirts prepare for a long fight’, Time, 24 May 2014)

This did not prevent General Prayuth from claiming that government would ‘carry on as usual’ under the army’s protection, but this myth was soon exploded:

Under the name of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta has brought sweeping changes in a matter of days. On Thursday, it dissolved the lower house of parliament and suspended the constitution – one Gen Prayuth had previously helped draw up during the last military coup in 2006. By emptying out both the house and senate, [the] junta can bypass the need for parliamentary approval of new laws.

By late on Saturday, the junta had also announced it had dissolved the senate and would be assuming control of all lawmaking powers. Several hours earlier, it had summoned 35 prominent academics and activists to report to army headquarters, in addition to some 155 leading politicians and leaders it had already called in for questioning.

The council has also sacked the police chief and head of the Department of Special Investigations – Thailand’s FBI. On Sunday afternoon, it called in the editors of 18 major Thai newspapers – among them Khaosod, the Bangkok Post, ASTV, Matichon and Thairath – according to the online news portal Prachatai. It was not clear if the editors would be allowed to leave or detained in unknown locations like those arrested earlier.

In a separate summons, the outspoken columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who writes for English-language paper the Nation, was asked to meet independently with the junta and said on Sunday morning he was en route to army headquarters. ‘On my way to see the new dictator of Thailand. Hopefully the last,’ he tweeted. He did not appear to have been released by Sunday evening.” (‘Thailand coup gets King Adulyadej approval as junta dissolves senate’ by Kate Hodal, Guardian, 26 May 2014)

In an attempt to portray the coup as ‘even-handed’, Prayuth did not confine himself to arresting the red-shirt supporters of the government, but also arrested Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the street protest movement.

This did not, however, prevent the supporters of the opposition expressing jubilation at the coup. They are certain that in Paryuth they have just the man they need to rid the country of the scourge of johnny-come-latelies who want to cleanse the country of its feudal relics and privileges. And they are not wrong:

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s new military dictator, has a reputation as a staunch royalist hardliner who has tried to recast himself as a more moderate figure since taking charge of the country’s powerful army four years ago.

A senior commander at the time of the military’s killing of ‘red-shirt’ protesters occupying parts of Bangkok in 2010, his relations with the red-backed government elected the following year appeared to have been improving – until now.

While he has portrayed himself as a reluctant intervener in the latest near seven-month spasm of Thailand’s long-running political crisis, some analysts say his record shows a man sympathetic to the ideas of opposition demonstrators campaigning to topple the elected administration …

Gen Prayuth … had also been an important figure in the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former premier who is at the heart of the political strife.

Gen Prayuth was part of the army’s inner circle in 2010 when it launched an operation to eject pro-Thaksin red-shirt protesters from parts of Bangkok, killing scores of them.” (‘Thailand’s coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha takes a hard line’ by Michael Peel, Financial Times, 24 May 2014)

The coup is the culmination of months of manoeuvring by Thailand’s élite to put an end to the popular elected government of the Pheu Thai party. In fact, in the words of David Pilling, “Thailand has been in the throes of political crisis for more than a decade, since the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 uncorked the economic and democratic ambitions of millions of poorer Thais. That has alarmed many members of the Bangkok élite, who see their privileges threatened.”(‘When is a coup not a coup?’, Financial Times, 20 May 2014)

Yet despite the élite’s hysterical denunciations of Shinawatra as corrupt and inefficient, the Thai electorate has, in every single election since 2001 – and to the frustration and rage of the élite – insisted on re-electing whatever party was associated with Shinawatra, including the Pheu Thai party headed by his sister Yingluck (until recently, Thailand’s prime minister). And this for the simple reason that these parties have proved in practice their willingness to improve the condition of the masses, introducing and maintaining free health and education provision in both town and country.

One voter interviewed by Time magazine expressed the feeling of the masses very succinctly: “Maybe Thaksin was corrupt, but he helped the poor people. The Democrat Party [the party of the undemocratic opposition, which claims Thailand is not ‘ready’ for democracy!] only helped themselves.”

However, towards the end of last year, the opposition organised massive demonstrations in the Thai capital, Bangkok, aimed at toppling the government of Yingluck Shinawatra and replacing it with an unelected council appointed by the King.

Ms Shinawatra responded by calling new elections for 2 February 2014, which were successfully held in most parts of the country, despite the opposition calling for them to be boycotted. This boycott call stemmed from the ruling class’s fear that the elections would be bound to result, as indeed they did, in Shinawatra’s re-election, given her massive support among the rural poor, who benefit from her policies of agricultural subsidies, health care and promotion of education – all of which of course divert money away from the rich to the poor.

In fact, one demonstrator compared the anti-Shinawatra movement to the Occupy Wall Street movement, except he said that their protest was that of the 1 percent against the 99 percent rather than vice versa!

However, the opposition then mobilised the judiciary – a part of the state machine that was still firmly under its control – to frustrate the workings of the new government, with the result that Yingluck Shinawatra was forced to resign her position as prime minister following a court ruling that she was guilty of ‘abuse of power’. Even the New York Times editorial board felt constrained to say that this decision “reeked of political favouritism”.(‘The military, again, takes over in Thailand’, 20 May 2014)

The judicial campaign against Yingluck is continuing, with allegations that she was in some way at fault with regard to the failure of a scheme organised by her party to subsidise rice production by purchasing Thai farmers’ rice crops at a price 50 percent above market price. It is alleged that, while the farmers delivered their crops to the state, the rice has rotted in warehouses and the farmers have not been paid.

Though the opposition is predictably claiming that these problems are caused by ‘corruption’ in circles close to the Shinawatras, the facts seem to cry out sabotage rather than corruption. For the moment, we have not been able to ascertain the truth, but merely note that the allegations do not appear to have undermined rural support for the Shinawatras – which suggests that the Thai peasantry have a much better idea of what is really going on than the various journalists who report the situation from their hotel rooms in Bangkok for the bourgeois media.

What happens now?

With the red-shirt leadership locked up in prison, it can be expected that it will take a while for the pro-Shinawatra forces to regroup – although they are already defying the government’s ban on congregations of more than five people and are battling the army and police in demonstrations throughout the country.

There is some evidence that ordinary soldiers are very reluctant to move against them:

Analysts say one reason for Gen Prayuth to hesitate are tensions between pro- and anti-red-shirt factions in the military itself, in spite of an earlier purge of some pro-Thaksin officers.

Almost half the 245,000-strong army is made up of conscripts, who are disproportionately likely to come from pro-Thaksin poor rural northern strongholds, rather than middle-class urban opposition areas, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

‘There are many views among the officer corps and among the soldiers about the way Thailand should go,’ said Tim Huxley, executive director at the IISS’s Asian arm, speaking just before the coup. ‘There are dangers a heavy direct intervention could divide them.’” (Michael Peel, op cit)

Curiously enough, there are also problems for the junta from inside the royal house. The present ‘revered’ king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 86 years old and in frail health, may have rushed to give his support and blessing to the coup, but his reign is not expected to last long. When he dies, the coup-plotters may well suffer a setback:

His chosen successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, lacks strong establishment support, partly because he is thought to be close to Mr Thaksin. In private, many royalists express a preference for his sister, Crown Princess Sirindhorn, who is second in line to the throne.”(David Pilling, op cit)

For the moment, western and Japanese imperialism appear to be leaving it up to the Thais to sort themselves out. While traditionally imperialism tends to side with feudal forces whose function is to safeguard imperialist looting, it is quite possible that in the present circumstances imperialism has become convinced that the Thai élite is not going to be able to fulfil that function satisfactorily because its support base is so diminished.

In fact, all the imperialist powers have felt compelled to ‘condemn’ the coup and to urge a ‘prompt return to democracy’. There is, as yet, not much sign that they might actually mean it.