THE Thai army, as most commentators in the region had predicted, has finally taken the first decisive step towards staging yet another coup to oust a democratically elected government. On May 20, an announcement on the Army run radio, said that the country was placed under martial law. The media has been put under strict censorship. The army spokesman specified that the civilian government would be allowed to function under the current caretaker ministry. The justice minister, Chalkasem Nitisri, has said that the army had taken the step without consulting the government. He however stated that the caretaker government was still running the country and that the army would only be in charge of national security. The army spokesman has said that martial law was introduced to prevent more violence flaring up between the rival groups. The opposition is hoping that the army formalizes its takeover of power and concedes to its demands for an indefinite postponement of elections and installing of an unelected council to rule the country. The army’s move has come after the Constitutional Court dismissed the elected prime minister.
It was virtually taken for granted by the supporters of Thailand’s beleaguered prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra that the country’s Constitutional Court would deliver an adverse ruling that would lead to her resignation. The Constitutional Court announced on May 7, that it had removed the democratically elected prime minister along with nine of her senior ministerial colleagues for “abuse of power”. Her crime was appointing a national security adviser of her own choice after she was elected to office in 2011. Yingluck had transferred the National Security Council chief at the time, Thawil Pliensri, known to be close to the opposition, to another government post and replaced him with Preiwpan Damapong, a former brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother. Thaksin was prime minister of Thailand from 2001-2006. He was forced out of office by a military coup.
The Constitutional Court in its ruling made the convoluted judgment that the Thai PM was within her rights to affect the transfer but had all the same acted on the basis of a “hidden agenda” which was not in accordance with “moral principle”. The governing Pheu Thai Party legal spokesman described the verdict of the Constitutional Court as a “new form of a coup” and urged the supporters of the government to stage protests and take legal actions against the Court.
A leading Thai legal expert, Ekachai Chainuvati, who teaches at the Siam University in Bangkok, told the media that the ruling of the Constitutional Court was “total nonsense in a democratic society” and said that Thailand was now being ruled by “juristocracy”, which he described “as a system of government governed by judges”. In 2008, the same Constitutional Court dismissed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers. One for accepting payment for appearing in a television cookery show and the other on trumped up charges of electoral fraud. Leading institutions like the Election Commission, the judiciary, the Senate and the Constitutional Court have been under the control of the traditional Bangkok based Thai elite which was never reconciled to power having passed to a party which had the support of the rural poor from the north and north-east of the country.
The Election Commission had refused to endorse the June schedule that the government has set for new elections. The last general elections held in February were won handily by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party. The Constitutional Court however ruled them as invalid as the main opposition party, the Democrats, had refused to participate and had actually prevented people from voting in their strongholds in the South and parts of Bangkok. The same scenes will be repeated if elections are allowed to be held in June and then the Constitutional Court will duly step in and rule the elections as invalid on the grounds that the opposition had boycotted it.
Moves are also afoot to bar the former prime minister, Yingluck from participating in electoral politics. The country’s National Anti-Corruption Authority in a ruling delivered after Yingluck resigned, called for her impeachment for “neglect of duty” in the “rice barter deal” her government had negotiated with China.
The Constitutional Court earlier lent the military a helping hand after it overthrew Thaksin in a coup in 2006. The Court, bowing to the wishes of the military leadership that had seized power, promptly banned the Thai Rak Thai Party led by the former prime minister. Thaksin had from exile in Dubai then formed another party – The Peoples Power Party, which triumphed in the elections that were held after the military ceded power. In 2008, the Constitutional Court again stepped in and at the behest of the opposition, removed two prime ministers in quick succession and paved the way for the installation of a military backed government led by the Democrat Party.
The traditional Thai elite consisting of the royalty, the military and the bureaucracy had initially welcomed the election of the multi billionaire telecom magnate, Thaksin in 2001. They did not bother too much about the cronyism and corruption that he encouraged. It was only after Thaksin started implementing wide ranging reforms that benefited the peasantry and the urban poor that the Thai elite turned against him. The welfare measures such as “health benefits” and “rice subsidy” for the poor were branded by the opposition as “vote buying” electoral gimmicks.
So far, the military has refrained from openly interfering and staging another coup, ignoring pleas by the anti-government protestors who now go by the name of People Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). In 2010, the Thai military had helped in the ruthless crack down on the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protestors killing more than 90. The PDRC is a front for the opposition Democrat Party, pro monarchy groups and sections of the security establishment. Suthep Thaugsuban, the PDRC leader, was a senior minister in the short lived government run by the Democrat Party at the end of the last decade. He is demanding the setting up of an unelected “peoples council” which would select a “non-political” new prime minister to run the country till a new constitution is framed. The so called “peoples council” if it has to materialise, has to have the support of the armed forces.
Suthep of course has the support of the Democrat Party in his endeavors to guarantee that the majority vote will not count in future elections. In successive fair and free elections held since 2001, Shinawatra led parties with their solid support base among the peasantry and workers, have emerged triumphant. That trend is unlikely to be reversed in the near future, unless the constitution is radically overhauled to ensure an authoritarian set up. The opposition support is mostly based in the southern part of the country and among the business elite and the middle class.
The PDRC is now calling for a final “all out battle” to oust the democratically elected government that is being led by a “caretaker” PM, Niwaththamrong Boonsongphisan. He was the finance minister under Yingluck. The Constitutional Court may give another helping hand by dismissing most of the Pheu Thai party legislators on the grounds that they had voted in favour of expanding the upper house – the Senate, to make it more representative. Both the Yellow Shirts, supporting the PDRC and the Red Shirts have been holding big noisy demonstrations in Bangkok. In recent months these demonstrations had turned violent leading to casualties. Twenty five people have been killed since large scale protests involving the two rival camps broke out in December last. Pro-Thaksin activists have now united under the banner of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). As the two rival camps hunkered down in Bangkok, a grenade attack on the Yellow Shirts base in the third week of May killed two anti-government protestors and injured 21. Many Red Shirt supporters seem prepared for any eventuality. Addressing a rally attended by over 1, 00,000 supporters in Bangkok in the first week of May, the leader of the Red Shirts, Jatuporn Promparn warned of “a final fight” with the elite. “We are here to settle the bill with the elite. It is better to die than be a slave”, he declared. The two rival camps of the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts are camped within kilometers of each other in the capital Bangkok, increasing the chances of more violent confrontations, similar to the bloody confrontation witnessed in 2010. A lawyer for the Thaksin family speaking to the media in Bangkok said that the Thai capital had become “pretty scary and lawless”.
After the recent developments, the Thai army has mobilised 15, 000 soldiers to maintain security in the capital. The army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has not explicitly ruled out the possibility of intervening in politics again. The military has indicated that it would be forced to intervene if large scale violence broke out. Since 1946, the Thai military has the dubious distinction of staging nine coups. A leading UDD activist, Thida Thavornseth, has said that the situation in Thailand is not the same as in 2006 when the army intervened. He claimed that many leading foreign powers were against another military coup in Thailand. The US State Department spokesman said in early May that a resolution to the country’s crisis “should include elections and an elected government”. Washington was however not unduly perturbed when the military in Egypt overthrew an elected government last year. Thailand, like Egypt, is a close military and political ally of the US.
The ongoing political instability has had an adverse impact on the Thai economy. Exports have slumped along with foreign direct investment. The tourism sector, one of the country’s top revenue earners has also been affected due to the spate of political protests. Estimates for the first quarter growth are negative.
The political instability could fuel the divisive forces in the country. An insurgency in the Muslim dominated part of the country adjoining the border with Malaysia has shown no signs of ebbing. The three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narrathiwat are majority Muslim. The insurgent groups there have been fighting the central government for decades, demanding autonomy from Bangkok. More than 5,700 people have been killed since 2004 after the Thai army launched an anti-insurgency campaign. The peace talks the Thai government had opened with some rebel groups last year have stalled due to the political stalemate in the rest of the country. In the second week of May, suspected insurgent launched around 30 attacks.
If new elections are postponed indefinitely and an unelected caretaker government is put in place, the inhabitants of northern Thailand, the main support base of the Shinawatras, could also rise in open revolt. The Lanna kingdom in the North was annexed by the Thai state only in 1899. They also speak a dialect different from the Thai spoken in Bangkok and the South.