A repeat cycle of military takeover and suspended liberties in Thailand will deepen its class cleavage, making it plausible that rule enforced by the gun could become its default condition. How this will save democracy for those who want to practise and honour it is an open question. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha's justification for assuming control was to reform the country's political system, its economy and society. But how this is to be done to everyone's liking remains an open question.
Months of stand-still when the Puea Thai government was made a prisoner of its own mandate by an unmolested insurrection cried out for decisive action to be taken. A brief period of military rule might even be welcomed by sections of the population tired of the carnival-style theatrics. Thailand was not just hurting, it was going down. The economy is tipping into recession, after a steep first-quarter contraction. Subversives given free rein by state organs, including the judiciary, made a nonsense of the law. Significant, therefore, was General Prayuth's warning to agitators of all political stripes not to stoke tensions, after he received the king's imprimatur for his mission.
But the army must never overstay its welcome. Elections should be called as soon as conditions are stabilised and the suspended constitution is reworked in a non-partisan consultation. Spontaneous protests despite a ban are a sign of a new political consciousness among young people unaffiliated to any constituency. In the north of the country, seething resentments over the removal of a government the rural people consider to be fair are a powder keg. The gun is not a solution in these circumstances.
Above all, the junta has to be impartial. Certain acts taken in the first days have been troubling. The leadership of the Puea Thai party and its "red shirts" grassroots network appear to have been neutered. Critics of the palace-leaning elites are being read the riot act. Promising rice farmers their unpaid accounts with the Yingluck Shinawatra government will be settled soon is the right thing to do, but cynics wonder if it is not intended also to undercut Puea Thai's support base.
The junta should avoid the impression it is out to eradicate what it thinks is the malevolent influence of the Shinawatra family in the country's business and political life. Excising them and their political vehicles will be as undemocratic and self-defeating as the Democrat Party diminishing democracy by refusing to contest the most recent elections. The army has it within its power to set Thailand on a course which will do justice to its standing as the land of free people and an integral part of the Asean family. It should discharge its warrant wisely.