Thailand’s Swift Coup Belies a Difficult Transition Ahead

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That Thailand moved so quickly from a state of nationwide martial law to a coup d’etat—orchestrated in dramatic fashion by armed forces commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha—should have come as no surprise to veteran observers of the country’s tumultuous political history. Yet it seemed to catch most Thai watchers off guard.
 

Just last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington assembled some of the most well-known and well-informed scholars, journalists, and others who follow Thailand, almost all of whom seemed to agree on one thing—that the Thai military was “back in the barracks,” having learned its lesson after the 2006 coup. The Cold War being over, Thailand’s international allies would no longer countenance the overthrow of a democratically elected government, no matter how flawed. Moreover, following the 2006 coup, the army had generally made a mess of the economy, and the constitution it drafted had failed to accomplish its primary goal of curbing electoral democracy. The antidemocratic bulwarks included in the charter, such as a partially appointed Senate, did little to end to the political influence of populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Barring prolonged violent clashes on the streets, the experts said, the military would not intervene in Thai politics again.
 

Nevertheless, the military has intervened, swiftly and decisively. It is important to note that while General Prayuth led the putsch and declared himself acting prime minister, he did so with the support of his fellow senior officers. When the general announced that the benignly named National Peacekeeping Committee had seized power on May 22, he was flanked by the heads of Thailand’s military branches.
 

Remarkably, General Prayuth and his collaborators were able to keep their plans secret until they were put into effect. Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the anti-Thaksin People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and its months of antigovernment protests, may have been especially surprised. Though he and his group had long been calling for the appointment of an interim government, by means of a military intervention if necessary, it is doubtful that he foresaw himself being trundled off under armed guard by the coup makers.
 

The coup was unexpected because it came just two days after the military took the slightly milder step of declaring martial law across the country. The distinction between the two is narrow but important. Martial law, described by some as a “coup lite,” afforded General Prayuth some flexibility and kept Thailand connected to international financial markets. Under the laws of the United States, Thailand’s treaty ally, sanctions must be imposed if a country receiving military assistance suffers a coup. In a brief statement released yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his disappointment in the Thai military and said the State Department would review its military assistance and other engagements with Thailand. Following the 2006 coup, Washington suspended military aid to Thailand for a year and a half. However, with the annual Cobra Gold military exercises already concluded, a new suspension of U.S. military cooperation may have less immediate impact.
 

The threat of a prolonged economic downturn linked to open-ended political turmoil might be more worrying to General Prayuth and his collaborators than a temporary straining of relations with the United States. Thailand’s economy is famously resilient and renowned for bouncing back from political unrest and natural disasters. However, just prior to the coup, the state planning commission announced that the country had entered into a recession, possibly influencing the general’s decision.
 

While the coup itself appeared deceptively simple, governing Thailand will be a more drawn out, complicated, and potentially bloody affair. The junta must simultaneously govern Thailand and shepherd through a series of contentious reforms, and it is unclear whether the coup leaders are up to the task. It is essential that they move the process along and restore civilian rule in a timely manner, but any new political framework that privileges the traditional Thai elite will provoke a backlash from pro-democracy activists who are still angered by the scrapping of the 1997 “People’s Constitution” after the 2006 coup.
 

General Prayuth and his ruling committee are also tasked with restoring stability to the country and bringing an end to the political violence that has resulted in 28 deaths since November. The junta has imposed a nationwide curfew, banned political gatherings of more than five people, and broken up protest sites throughout Bangkok. Some brave Thais are protesting the coup, while others have come out to support it. A number of the former have been arrested. Should pro-democracy or pro-Thaksin forces take to the streets en masse, it is highly probable that the military will take decisive action. It is worth remembering that General Prayuth led the bloody 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protesters that left 90 people dead. There will be no further protracted street protests, unless the ban on assembly is lifted. In any event, it will fall on General Prayuth to ensure that the army minimizes its use of force, or face an escalation of violence that could lead to a lengthy, destructive conflict.
 

Observers are waiting to see whether the general requests an audience with the king, as coup makers have done in the past. During the announcement of the 2006 coup, the junta members were flanked by large royal portraits. In 2014, the portraits were conspicuously absent. This could indicate that the military is seeking to distance the monarchy from its actions, or that the coup lacks support from the institution. General Prayuth would be wise to stay away from the palace. With the king in poor health and national anxiety over the succession on the rise, involving the palace in any way would risk harming the monarchy’s reputation when it is already in its most vulnerable state in decades.

 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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