Army takes control

Print edition : June 13, 2014

On the outskirts of Bangkok on May 20, at a checkpoint near which pro-government "Red Shirts" had been protesting for several days. Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha (second from right) with (from left) National Police chief Adul Saengsingkaew, navy chief Adm. Narong Pipatthanasant and air force chief Air Marshal Prachin Janthong at a meeting with high-ranking officials in Bangkok after martial law was declared on May 20. Photo: Apichart Weerawong/AP

Suthep Thaugsuban (extreme right) of the People's Democratic Reform Committee, an anti-government outfit, leading a march at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on May 19. Photo: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/REUTERS

Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok on May 7 after the Constitutional Court removed her as Prime Minister. Photo: Sakchai Lalit/AP

The army seizes power following the imposition of martial law after the Constitutional Court in a “judicial coup” removes Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minister for “abuse of power” and triggers an ugly confrontation between pro- and anti-government groups.

THAILAND’S ARMY, AS MOST COMMENTATORS in the region predicted, has staged yet another coup to oust a democratically elected government. On May 20, an announcement on the army-run radio said the country was being placed under martial law. The media was put under strict censorship. Two days later, the army chief, after a meeting with leaders of the main political parties and protesters on both sides, announced that the army was taking control to restore order.

The army spokesman said martial law was introduced to prevent more violence flaring up between pro-government and anti-government supporters. Following the army's takeover of power the opposition hoped that the army would concede to its demands for an indefinite postponement of elections and the installation of an unelected council to rule the country.

The army’s move follows the Constitutional Court’s dismissal of the democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. On May 7, the court announced her removal, along with nine of her senior ministerial colleagues, for “abuse of power”.

Her crime: she appointed a national security adviser of her choice after she was elected to office in 2011. Yingluck had transferred the then National Security Council chief, Thawil Pliensri, known to be close to the opposition, and appointed in his place Preiwpan Damapong, a former brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother. Thaksin, Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006, was forced out of office by a military coup.

In its convoluted ruling, the Constitutional Court said that the Prime Minister was within her rights to effect the transfer but had, all the same, acted on the basis of a “hidden agenda”, which was not in accordance with “moral principles”.

The governing Pheu Thai Party’s legal spokesperson described the verdict as a “new form of a coup” and urged the government’s supporters to stage protests and take legal action against the court.

Ekachai Chainuvati, a leading legal expert who teaches at Siam University in Bangkok, told the media that the ruling was “total nonsense in a democratic society”. He said Thailand was now being ruled by “juristocracy”, which he described “as a system of government governed by judges”.

In 2008, the same court dismissed two pro-Thaksin Prime Ministers—one for accepting payment for appearing in a television cookery show and the other on trumped-up charges of electoral fraud. Leading institutions such as the Election Commission, the judiciary, the Senate and the Constitutional Court have been under the control of the traditional Bangkok-based Thai elite, which was never reconciled to the fact that power had passed to a party that had the support of the rural poor in the north and the north-east of the country.

The Election Commission refused to endorse the June schedule that the government set for new elections. The last general election held in February was won handily by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party. The Constitutional Court, however, ruled it to be invalid because the main opposition, the Democrat Party, had refused to participate and actually prevented people from voting in its strongholds in the south and in parts of Bangkok. The same thing will happen if elections are allowed to be held in June, and the Constitutional Court will step in and rule the election as invalid on the grounds that the opposition boycotted it. Moves are also afoot to bar Yingluck from participating in electoral politics. The National Anti-Corruption Commission, in a ruling delivered after Yingluck resigned, called for her impeachment for “neglect of duty” in the “rice barter deal” her government negotiated with China.

Murky politics

The Constitutional Court had lent the military a helping hand after it overthrew Thaksin in a coup in 2006. The court, bowing to the wishes of the military leadership that had seized power, promptly banned the Thai Rak Thai Party led by him. However, Thaksin, from exile in Dubai, formed the People Power Party, which triumphed in the elections that were held after the military ceded power. In 2008, the Constitutional Court stepped in again and, at the behest of the opposition, removed two Prime Ministers in quick succession and paved the way for the installation of a military-backed government led by the Democrat Party.

The traditional Thai elite consisting of the royalty, the military and the bureaucracy initially welcomed the election of Thaksin, a multi-billionaire telecom magnate, in 2001. They did not bother much about the cronyism and corruption he encouraged. It was only after Thaksin started implementing wide-ranging reforms that benefited the peasantry and the urban poor that the Thai elite turned against him. Welfare measures such as “health benefits” and “rice subsidy” for the poor were branded by the opposition as “vote-buying” electoral gimmicks.

So far, the military has ignored the pleas of the anti-government protesters, who now go by the name of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). In 2010, the military participated in the ruthless crackdown on the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protesters, killing more than 90 of them. The PDRC is a front for the opposition Democrat Party, pro-monarchy groups and sections of the security establishment. PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban was a senior Minister in the short-lived government run by the Democrat Party at the end of the last decade. He has demanded the setting up of an unelected “people’s council” to select a “non-political” new Prime Minister to run the country until a new constitution is framed. The so-called people’s council can materialise only with the support of the armed forces.

Suthep, of course, has the support of the Democrat Party in his endeavours to guarantee that the majority vote will not count in future elections. In successive free and fair elections held since 2001, the Shinawatras-led parties, with their solid support base among the peasantry and the workers, have emerged triumphant. That trend is unlikely to be reversed in the near future unless the Constitution is overhauled radically to ensure an authoritarian set-up. The opposition support is mostly based in the southern part of the country and among the business elite and the middle class.

The PDRC has called for a final “all-out battle” to oust the democratically elected government that is led by “caretaker” Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, who was the Finance Minister under Yingluck. The Constitutional Court may give the opposition another helping hand by dismissing most of the Pheu Thai Party legislators on the grounds that they voted in favour of expanding the Senate (upper house) to make it more representative.

Violent protests

Both the PDRC-supporting “Yellow Shirts” and the pro-government “Red Shirts” have been holding big, noisy demonstrations in Bangkok, which in recent months have turned violent. Twenty-five people have been killed since large-scale protests involving the two rival camps broke out in December. Pro-Thaksin activists have now united under the banner of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). As the two rival camps hunkered down in Bangkok, a grenade attack on the Yellow Shirts base in the third week of May killed two anti-government protesters and injured 21.

Many Red Shirts seem prepared for any eventuality. In the first week of May, at a huge rally of the Red Shirts in Bangkok, their leader, Jatuporn Prompan, warned of “a final fight” with the elite. “We are here to settle the bill with the elite. It is better to die than be a slave,” he declared. The rival sides are camped within kilometres of each other in the capital, increasing the chances of violent confrontations, similar to the bloody confrontation witnessed in 2010. A lawyer for the Thaksin family, speaking to the media in Bangkok, said the capital had become “pretty scary and lawless”.

Following the recent developments, the army has mobilised 15,000 soldiers to maintain security in the capital. The Army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has not explicitly ruled out the possibility of intervening in politics again. The military has indicated that it will be forced to intervene if large-scale violence breaks out. Since 1946, the Thai military has the dubious distinction of staging nine coups.

Thida Thavornseth, a leading UDD activist, said that the situation in Thailand was not the same as in 2006 when the army intervened. He claimed that many leading foreign powers were against another military coup in Thailand. The United States State Department spokesman said in early May that a resolution to the country’s crisis “should include elections and an elected government”. The U.S. was, however, not unduly perturbed when the military in Egypt overthrew an elected government last year. Thailand, like Egypt, is a close military and political ally of the U.S.

The political instability has had an adverse impact on the Thai economy. Exports have slumped along with foreign direct investment. The tourism sector, one of the country’s top revenue earners, has also been affected by the spate of political protests. The estimates for the first quarter growth are negative.

The political instability could fuel the divisive forces in the country. The insurgency in the Muslim-dominated southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat adjoining the border with Malaysia has shown no signs of ebbing. The insurgent groups have been fighting the central government for decades, demanding autonomy from Bangkok. More than 5,700 people have been killed since 2004 after the army launched an anti-insurgency campaign. The peace talks that the Thai government opened with some rebel groups last year have stalled because of the political stalemate in the rest of the country. In the second week of May, suspected insurgents launched around 30 attacks.

If new elections are postponed indefinitely and an unelected caretaker government is put in place, the inhabitants of northern Thailand, the main support base of the Shinawatras, could also rise in open revolt. The Lanna Kingdom in the north was annexed by the Thai state only in 1899. They also speak a dialect different from the Thai spoken in Bangkok and the south.

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