22 May 2014 marks Thailand’s first military coup in 8 years, after the army ordered two days of peace talks during which the country's political rivals failed to end their deadlock. Thailand’s history has averaged one coup every 4.5 years for the last eight decades and its enviable record of economic resilience in the face of political upheaval has gained itself a nickname “Teflon Thailand”. The military takeover has been peaceful and both its currency value and stock index indicates that the coup hasn’t done much harm to the economy. Even with a curfew being enforced and martial law being applied, both the daily life of the Thai people and the country’s famous tourism industry don't seem to have been severely affected.
However there’s something different this time. Thailand’s economy is on the brink of a recession after months of political unrest. Even though the monarch endorsed the coup as he has done in the past, the 86-year-old king is ailing and Thailand coming to the twilight of his reign. Unlike the coup of 2006, when the military's critics largely kept silent, this time protests led by small groups began immediately. Moreover, for the first time the coup’s general ordered some prominent intellectuals, activists, and journalists to turn themselves in.
The army has long been the symbol of authoritarianism and has close ties with the semi-divine King Bhumibol. With lèse-majesté in the constitution, making any criticism of the King, the Queen and the Prince punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment, the military coup can easily be legitmised through the endorsement of the king. It’s also believed that during the 6-month-long political crisis starting from last November, the opposition party (People's Alliance for Democracy, aka Yellow Shirts) didn't want to compromise with the government as the king would be involved and mediating between them. With the King still on the throne, it’s much easier for the army to topple the civilian government and eradicate the opposing Shinawatra family, a wealthy and powerful Thai family.
However, the times have changed. “Thailand has undergone a dramatic transformation, even since 2006. It has moved away even further from being the kind of rural agricultural society with its social relations defined by hierarchical, paternalistic relations. More each year, it resembles a modern state whose individual citizens and social groups look out for their own interests”, writes The Economist in May.
While the elites and army in Bangkok have made a couple of attempts to rule the country in the old authoritarian way and failed, they still consider the Shinawatras as enemies, but are reluctant to try to understand what makes the Shinawatras enduringly popular amongst Thai voters.
The prospect of Thailand is still unclear. The coup has achieved almost everything the opposition has been campaigning for during the 6-month political crisis: ousting Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister and the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, and overthrowing the government led by her Pheu Thai Party. According to the polls, the opposition is almost certain to lose in any election in the near future. Reforming the elections by devaluing the votes in the northern and rural areas, the traditional voting strongholds of the Pheu Thai Party, the governing party, would be the only legitimate chance for the opposition to take the office, creating a damaging setback for democracy.
A democratic election due in July has been cancelled and no elections will be held for over a year; according to Thailand’s military junta this is "to allow time for political reconciliation and reform." A new draft constitution and a series of political reforms are likely to be implemented under the supervision of the army. General Prayuth Chan-ocha once promised a “genuine democracy” created by the army, and at the same time, warned the opposition that he may have no other option but to use force if protests continue. "Resistance would only slow the process of bringing 'happiness' back to the Thai people", he said on the televised address. International media such as BBC and CNN are still blocked, whereas national media are under severe censorship. The order and normality that the coup intended to restore will never be achieved while the peoples’ voices are being repressed.
Sofie Chen is a student of liberal arts, residing in Shanghai. Her interests cover gender equality and new media in social transformation. She has great passion of contributing to the world's transformation into a better one.
Written by Sofie Chen and published on 13-June-2014