On the Frontline. Crude Power in Thailand’s 2014 Coup: Old Soldiers Almost Die

On the Frontline. Crude Power in Thailand’s 2014 Coup: Old Soldiers Almost Die

The author is an academic based in Thailand who writes anonymously because of the crackdown on academic freedom. See letter by UK academics and others in support of colleagues in Thailand.             

It is not the first time that Thailand has experienced a coup d’état. However, it is new that the junta faces strong resistance from people. Soon after the coup was declared, a small group of people started a protest in Chiang Mai – the Northern metropolis. A day later, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center demanding the military to step down. Although 5 protesters were arrested during the incident, thousands people joined the rally later on. It seems that the struggles will be further multiplied and enlarged, especially in Bangkok and other major districts. On social media, people openly condemn the coup-makers. Facebook, Tweeter and Line are the most important channels for communicating and mobilizing the anti-coup movement. It might be said that for the army to take control over the government might not be a difficult task, but to rule the country is now something totally different.

Marx famously wrote that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” This strong is a good description of a decade-long deformation politics in Thailand. In 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra’s government was ousted by the troops who named themselves ‘the Council for Reforming the Democratic Regime of Government with the King as Head of State’. The 2006 coup d’état was widely perceived as a royalist coup since the military declared their urgent need to protect the king. That coup took place after several months of a massive rally of Yellow Shirts in the heart of Bangkok. After a year of military rule, two of Thaksin’s nominal prime ministers were removed from the position by the so-called judicial coups, and then the Democrat Party – a conservative figure head – came into power through the switching sides of some of Thaksin’s MPs.

In late-2009, the Red Shirts took to the streets and this ended up in a bloody crackdown in 2010. The Red Shirts represented people who were greatly benefitted by Thaksin’s pro-poor policies during his reign and their demand was for is electoral democracy. After two years of political stability under Yingluck Shinawatra’s leadership, political turmoil was once again sparked after a controversial amnesty law proposed by Yingluck’s government was passed in  the Lower House. The bill was highly criticized since it apparently would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand from self-exile free of his corruption and criminal convictions.

In this context, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep Thaugsuban – a senior member of the Democrat Party – took to the streets demanding the removal of Shinawatra’s regime from Thai politics. By this means, the demands for military intervention and the installation of un-elected and extra-constitutional “People’s Council” were repeated. Other Independent Constitutional Bodies -set up by the army’s 2007 Constitution – also violated democratic principles in their attempts to overthrow the caretaker government. Violence took place daily from both the PDRC’s guards and anonymous gunmen. After the 8-month-long crisis, the PDRC’s and other conservative groups’ demand were satisfied when the military declared their coup on 22 May 2014.

A dismal cycle of coups has again repeated itself. However, this time, the junta faces many troubles.

It must be understood that the success of the military in 2006 coup was based on their capacity to associate themselves with the dominant ideology of ‘nation, religion and king’. Since Thaksin has long been portrayed as an arrogant leader, whose popularity was a dangerous threat to the throne, the royalist discourse was employed to justify the military intervention and the coup was welcomed by many of Bangkok’s royalists. Since then, the palace has been questioned as never before. Some of Red Shirts’ leaders and scholars openly criticized the king for supporting the coup.

After the 2010 crackdown, lèse-majesté – the law that prohibits any criticisms against the king, the queen and the royal succession – was the most important political weapon the ruling Democrat Party used to arrest their political opponents. During this time, the number of lèse-majesté victims skyrocketed. On social networks, a witch-hunt campaigning for social sanctions against those who were alleged to disrespect the king arose. Royalist discourses have been spread throughout the country so as to discredit the pro-democracy movements. This pushes Thailand into a deep polarization and royal legitimacy has been seriously shaken.

There is now a controversy over just how enthusiastic 86-year-old King Bhumibol feels about the recent coup. While in 2006, the king clearly showed his strong support of the junta by licensing it with royal approval within a day, this time, it took three days for royal endorsement. Further, until now, all military announcements have been declared without a picture of the king on the screen. There is no royal anthem on any army materials broadcast on televisions and radios. The name of the coup-makers – the ‘National Peace and Order Maintaining Council’ – also does not mention anything relating to the royal family. More importantly, the king has yet presented himself in the public with the coup-makers. Even though some argue that the junta is unwilling to drag the king into the present political crisis, it could be said the other way round that the king himself might be dissatisfied with the military action. The problem of royal succession may be another important factor that could explain the king’s reluctance.

The ongoing situation implicitly indicates that the junta has failed to draw legitimacy from traditional state ideology. First, the king’s opinion on the recent coup is still unclear. Second, the royal legitimacy has been challenged heavily since the 2006 coup. This time, royal endorsement alone could barely sustain the troops regime.

More importantly, it should be highlighted that the social and political context of the 2014 coup is completely different from that of 2006. Whilst in 2006 coup, there was only one strong political camp – ‘The Yellow Shirts’- over the intervening 8-year period, the Red Shirts have grown significantly, and thus, the current political polarization has become more radical than before. In 2006, the resistance to the coup was very limited due to the lack of organisation among Thaksin’s supporters. However, the 2010 massacre significantly embedded the sense of political injustice among the Red Shirts protesters and further united them. From then on, the political consciousness of the Red Shirts has been developed by scholars whose works support the idea of democracy, rule of law, equality and justice.

Early on election day, 26 January 2014, although many polling stations were blocked by PDRC’s demonstrators, many people decided to set up their symbolic ballot box just in front of the enclosed stations in order to express their wills to vote. Some individuals even risked their life in an attempt to get through the polling stations which were occupied by a number of PDRC’s protesters. These indicate the blossoming of democratic consciousness among many Thais. However, without regard to democratic principles the army staged the coup in the midst of political upheaval. They could only satisfy the demands of the conservative camp while leaving their opponents outraged.

Machiavelli wrote in sixteenth century that it is better to be feared rather than to be loved, but that the ruler must avoid making himself despised or hated. In the present day, the coup-makers fail to be loved since they could hardly draw their legitimacy from the palace despite the royal endorsement. Furthermore, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a coup leader, does not have the strong personality that is required for being a charismatic leader. Rather, he looks like a clumsy old soldier who were pushed by his arch-royalist superiors to do their dirty work. Any public support for the coup relies merely on a conservative perception that the coup would create order and stability, as well as ending  all forms of corruptions would be ended. These misleading impressions have nothing to do with love and loyalty towards the military leader or the king.

Without hegemonic power, crude force alone is not enough to legitimize the overthrow of democracy. Moreover, the troops are also incapable of simulating fear. Even though they cut off televisions and radios, impose a curfew, as well as ban all public gatherings, social networks and websites function to link people together and provide them the powerful means of communication. Uncensored news and information is spread by leading websites such as CNN, BBC and Reuter. Anti-coup campaigns and events were initiated via Facebook, Tweeter and Line. In 2006, all of these social media did not exist, so after the army blocked a number of websites, people were completely disconnected. But in 2014, they cannot do so. Thanks to the social media, today people are no longer afraid of unconstitutional power and what the present-day coup instigates is merely hatred. The military actions only recapitulate the sense of injustice and anger among many people. In spite of their monopoly over all physical violence, the military coup is potentially an outdated trend in today’s Thailand.

Despite the fact that their attempts to rule the country are so far unsuccessful, there is a sign that the military will put more pressure to suppress all forms of resistances. The old 1976 anti-communist methods have once again been employed to spread fear. In the fourth day of anti-coup demonstrations, the troops alleged the protesters were being paid by outlawed gambling financiers. It should be noted that the charge of being ‘hired’ has long been used by the Yellow Shirts to delegitimize the Red Shirts movement. Howsoever, this time, the army even exacerbates the situation by inciting the bystanders to assault the protesters. All crimes involving alleged lèse-majesté and sedition are to be made subject to military court.

Before this the military had widened their target by publicly summoning 35 critical academics, political activists and journalists to report to the Council. The list includes members of the critical legal scholars group known as Nitirat (the Enlightened Jurists), Somsak Jeamteerasakul – a prominent historian from Thammasat University – as well as a famous student activist “Aum Neko”. All of them are broadly known for outspoken criticism of lèse-majesté laws. More recently, a number of academics and students who organized the anti-coup campaign in provincial universities were also called to report. Many political activists, writers and Red Shirts’ local leaders were secretly arrested with the high possibility of being charged by lèse-majesté.

A volunteer ‘thought police’ has been licensed by the junta. The military publicly voice their support online witch-hunt activities. They also encourage youths to report any threats toward military officers. In the short term, these may help the army to regain their control over the country, but, in the long run, royal legitimacy is placed at risk.

The inability to govern drives the military to employ wider coercive means and the target of their menace would seem not just to be limited only to politicians, but also broader public figures. This time, it seems that what the troops are afraid of most of all is not Shinawatra’s network, but everyone who opposes their regime. The scholars who function as the organic intellectuals for pro-democracy movements are their primary target. Since the martial law declared two days before the seizure of state power, the army ordered academics not to give their political opinions. The progressive television station was blocked and others were closely inspected. For the junta, what seems as a serious threat is not physical opposition; rather, words and thoughts are understood to be the real dangers.

With strong pressure from the international community, Thailand’s coup-makers are now facing an uneasy situation. On a global level, they are hugely condemned for violating democratic principles. Sanctions have already been imposed by the United States – Thailand’s oldest and most important ally. The EU and other major powers might soon follow the  American path. On a domestic level, the junta is greatly challenged by the anti-coup movements. At Bangkok’s Victory Monument, a thousand unarmed protesters boldly excluded the army from their demonstration site. At Rajaprasong, where the 2010 crackdown took place, many thousands of anti-coup demonstrators surrounded a dozen soldiers forcing them to surrender. So far anti-coup rallies have been held daily in Bangkok and other major districts. It is just a matter of time before the old soldiers die. Nevertheless, in order to prevent any loss of life, international support is of key importance, since it would help restrict the use of military violence. Other urgent issues are that the human rights principle must be respected and all those who were called in to report or were arrested must be freed. Basic freedoms of speech must be recognized.