Why the latest coup may no longer be 'business-as-usual' for Thailand

Thai soldiers sing as they stand on an army truck to entertain people at Victory monument in Bangkok on June 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thai soldiers sing as they stand on an army truck to entertain people at Victory monument in Bangkok on June 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

On May 29, exactly one week after General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Thai military announced a coup, I travelled to Bangkok to observe the situation on the ground. Passing through the Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi international airports, roaming the traffic-burdened streets of the Siam Square district, and cruising along the Chao Phraya River in Asia’s “City of Angels,” I hardly noticed any troop presence in the Thai capital.

Indeed, there was little fear or tension in the air, even near the usual demonstration sites. Local Thais looked relaxed and composed as they sat at the Starbucks cafes that litter the urban sprawl. Above ground level, the BTS SkyTrain hummed along smoothly, and commuters went about their business as they would on any normal day. And despite the imposition of a curfew – which the junta kept in place until mid-June – hundreds of patrons were bustling in and out of night markets, bars, and clubs, revelling in the streets of the notorious Patpong red-light district, as if oblivious to the country’s political situation.

A Bangkok local I spoke to said of the situation: “Things are normal. Things are safe. This has happened many times before; coups are just business-as-usual in Thailand.”

For a country that has already been through 11 other coups d'état (and several more coup attempts) since 1932, this year’s military takeover may appear to be “business-as-usual” – or “déjà-coup”, as some have dubbed it. But in reality, the consequences of the May 2014 coup cannot be underestimated. Beneath the surface, a crisis is brewing – and it could pose serious problems for the 67 million-strong South-east Asian nation.

Take, for example, the recent crackdowns. In just one month, the military junta has arbitrarily detained over 500 peaceful political activists, journalists, academics, and critics. Censorship of the Internet and media is rampant, all criticism of the coup is banned, and Thailand’s long-standing lèse-majesté prosecutions are now on the rise. Thousands of migrant workers from neighbouring countries, such as Cambodia, are fleeing. (It is, unfortunately, easy to miss much of this when visiting Bangkok).

“The raft of repressive measures in place in Thailand paints a grim picture of the state of human rights under martial law,” Richard Bennett, the Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, stated recently. “The military authorities must immediately revoke these restrictions…”

Under the pretext of economic reforms, “anti-corruption” measures, “moral cleansing,” and nationwide “happiness” campaigns (free broadcasting of World Cup matches, for example), the junta has justified its indefinite suspension of democracy. It will be at least another year until elections are held, and any constitutional democracy that does emerge will undoubtedly be formed on the junta’s terms.

Analysts have predicted that any new, junta-backed “democratic” framework will likely lead to the domination of powerful, appointed institutions over the Thaksinites – populists who have won every election since 2001. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (ousted in the 2006 coup) and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (ousted earlier this year), hold a strong coalition of support among rural and poor voters in Thailand. (This may be surprising, considering the fact that Thaksin himself is a billionaire).

On the other hand, wealthy, traditional Bangkok elites – as well as the military establishment – have little in common with the rural poor. They have also always viewed the Thaksinites with great suspicion and resentment, accusing them of being corrupt and insufficiently supportive of the Thai monarchy. Hence, the military junta will seize the opportunity provided by the coup to alter the makeup of Thailand’s parliamentary democracy, limiting the ability of the Thaksinites and other opposition groups to stage a comeback.

The crisis is further complicated by the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, has not been able to play the much-needed role of arbitrator between the junta and its dissenters. Though he is revered all across the country, King Bhumibol is now 86 years old and quite frail. He has, in fact, quietly endorsed the junta.

Given the concern about Rama IX’s health, the question of monarchical succession looms large in the background, casting even more uncertainty and chaos over the current political situation. In May 2010, The Economist reported: “There is an old prophecy that holds that the Chakri dynasty will last only nine generations.” Rama IX is, of course, the ninth monarch of the Chakri dynasty. His son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is a highly unpopular heir-apparent. At the moment, then, the future of the monarchy is as unclear as the future of the democracy.

The potential instability of the monarchy, coupled with the other grave problems that have arisen, could make this coup different from the others that Thailand has endured. In fact, relative to previous coups, this year’s turmoil – including the lead-up to the late May military announcement – has already taken an unprecedented toll on the economy.

Private investment fell by 6.1 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter. In the same period, manufacturing output was down by 7.9 per cent, and the country’s auto production plunged by a whopping 26.2 per cent. Exports are stalling, and household debt is at an all-time high (80 per cent of GDP). Not surprisingly, the economy contracted by 2.1 per cent in the first three months, chalking up a trade deficit of US$1.45 billion, more than twice the forecast $600 million.

In other words, it may no longer be “business-as-usual” for Thailand. Indeed, it could be the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Given the explosive factors at play, the country could descend into mass chaos, violence, and economic collapse – unless something is done to prevent such an outcome.

Before it is too late, the Thai people must come together to develop a long-term strategy to revamp their domestic politics.

In September 2010, Milton Osborne wrote in Southeast Asia: An Introductory History: “As Thailand enters the second decade of the twenty-first century it seems fair to judge that it still has not settled on a political system that fully matches the undoubted vigour of its people.”

Clearly, that statement remains true today. And while the future of the monarchy may be out of their control, the Thai citizenry should use this moment to reflect upon the fundamental social, economic, and political divides that have sowed such discord. Almost everyone sees the inevitable need for this type of rethinking, whether it is those in the junta or those who protest it.

However, this process of rethinking must be carried out in a genuinely democratic fashion. Thais must reject the political culture that prioritises unilateral military action and ruthless expediency instead of long-lasting and fundamental reforms brought about by popular, elected governments.

No matter what their political differences may be, surely most can agree that decisions made at the ballot box are superior to those formed while staring down the barrel of a gun.

Could this realisation help the Thai elites reconcile with the rural poor and the Thaksinites? Could it give rise to a better selection of electoral candidates compared to the usual suspects? And could it eventually coup-proof the most coup-prone country in contemporary history?

Or will Thailand’s crisis just continue to deepen? Only time will tell. For the sake of 67 million people – and many beyond Thailand’s borders, as well – we must hope for the best.

Madhu Narasimhan is an American Fulbright Scholar based in Malaysia.