BANGKOK — Thailand’s military has locked up critics, shredded the constitution and flooded the streets with troops. The top brass have successfully seized total control over a prosperous nation of 67 million — all without the hassle of an election.
Yet they hardly seem to be enjoying themselves. Thailand’s new supremo, a 60-year-old army chief named Prayuth Chan-Ocha, has appeared unnerved by scrutiny of his putsch.
When the Thai media asked him the question on everyone’s mind — when might he cede power via elections? — he stormed off in a huff. Army aides have since warned reporters not to approach the general in an “aggressive, pushy manner.”
Thailand is often seen as offering a cheerful respite from much of Southeast Asia’s authoritarianism. But the new junta, which overran an elected government last week, now appears to be borrowing its playbook from army-dominated Myanmar.
Since the takeover, soldiers have rounded up politicians, censored the media and detained activists suspected of enmity toward the coup.
All the while, the junta is taking pains to portray its takeover as a sacrifice rather than a power grab. “I’m telling you: we didn’t have a choice,” said Lt. Gen. Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, the army’s deputy chief of staff. Without the coup, “Bangkok would have become like Libya. Or Syria. We couldn’t let that happen.”
The military has locked up many of Thailand’s influential politicians by “inviting” them into confinement at army camps. In a leaked video of Prayuth’s briefing to foreign diplomats, he depicted their confinement as a gift: “We just want them to relax. To have some time to think over what they’ve done ... it seems to me they’re quite happy with detention.” Those who emerge must agree to a caveat: Do not resist the junta.
Declining the army’s so-called invitation? Not an option. One of the few deposed government ministers who evaded custody, a bespectacled politician named Chaturon Chaisang, surfaced Tuesday in a hastily scheduled briefing with the foreign press in Bangkok.
His message to Thais: resist the coup but avoid confrontation. “Be aware,” Chaturon said. “The military government, the military rulers, can be more cruel than you might think.”
His message to the army: “The coup will create more conflict in society. There will be more potential for this society to face violence. Will there be an underground struggle? It depends on whether or not the coup makers allow people to express their opinions or participate in the process to bring back democracy.”
Shortly thereafter, he was captured by soldiers, who pushed through a wild media scrum and led him away.
Prayuth, the army chief, has depicted himself as a father figure placing the nation’s warring political camps in a time out. “Please believe in all of us. We’re the institution of this country. We have dignity,” he told foreign diplomats. “What we’ve done here ... we do not seek to get power.”
But the junta now has power and plenty of it. There are few signs the generals intend to return it to the people via elections any time soon.
The junta justified its power seizure by pointing out that the elected government, led by a party called Pheu Thai, was too dysfunctional to govern the nation.
But that dysfunction was largely owed to a self-proclaimed “people’s coup” street movement that chased elected politicians out of their offices and sabotaged an election Pheu Thai was expected to win. The movement — linked to Thailand’s pro-establishment Democrat Party, which hasn’t won an election for two decades — repeatedly egged on the military to seize power and deliver their demands.
That’s pretty much what has happened. The movement called for a suspension of elections so that a hand-picked council of statesmen could run the country. The junta is now busy setting up a council similar to what the “people’s coup” movement imagined.
“We did this despite great risk,” Lt. Gen. Chatchalerm said. “If we’d failed, we’d be imprisoned ... and if you think deeply, it’s a sacrifice. Treason charges are punishable by death.”
This is Thailand’s 12th successful coup since the direct rule of kings ended in the 1930s. After the last coup, in 2006, the military quickly assured the public that elections would resume once they rewrote the constitution. They reworked the document so that non-elected commissions would have sweeping powers to wipe out elected parties and oust prime ministers over petty offenses.
In recent years, Thailand’s courts have deployed those powers with great zeal: Three premiers have been ousted by judges since the last coup. But each time new elections are held, the same political machine wins, to the dismay of many arch-royalists, well-to-do urbanites and army top brass.
Helmed by a mogul-turned-politician named Thaksin Shinawatra — currently in self-imposed exile to evade corruption charges — this political network has dominated elections for more than a decade by courting the rural and working classes with populist policies. There is little incentive for the army to rush toward elections; after all, this party has a habit of triumphing at the polls despite the army’s interventions.
How the junta will end its reign is a mystery for now. But they are unlikely to return power via elections without first attempting to eliminate the influence of Thaksin’s populist political machine and shoring up power for Thailand’s establishment old guard.
Thailand is nowhere near collapse. The trains still run. The ATMs still spit out cash. The crystal-sand beaches are lovely as ever. Before the coup and today, the country is light years away from the horrors of Syria.
But prospects of the Thai public choosing its own leaders in the near future appear bleak.
Before his arrest, Chaturon predicted a rough road ahead for the junta. “They don’t have the knowledge or experience to administer this country,” he said. “They have no support from the international community or the majority of the Thai people.”
Defying junta orders, and risking arrest, Thais irate over the coup have gathered daily in Bangkok to rail against soldiers standing guard. The crowds number in the low hundreds and typically disperse when confronted by troops. But they stubbornly emerge each day before sunset.
Over truck-mounted loudspeakers, an army officer warned protesters on Monday that they were being filmed and could face punishment. One protester — a 48-year-old woman named Mai — flipped off the troops anyway; she was mocked over the army’s speakers as a wannabe celebrity showing off for foreign journalists’ cameras.
“I don’t care. I’m sickened by the army takeover,” Mai said. “I can’t count the number of coups I’ve seen in my life. We’re exhausted and don’t know what to do.”
(Patrick Winn/GlobalPost via Instagram)