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The U.S. Response to Thailand’s Coup

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 22, 2014

thailand-coup Soldiers take up position at the Democracy monument after the coup was declared in Bangkok on May 22, 2014. Thailand's army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha took control of the government in the coup on Thursday saying the army had to restore order and push through reforms, two days after he declared martial law (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy: Reuters).

So, the Thai military has now made real what, in effect, it had already done earlier this week—launched a coup and taken over the powers of government. The armed forces now have posted troops around Bangkok, dispatched ministers from the previous civilian government, abrogated the standing constitution (except for a few articles) and passed harsh new censorship decrees as part of their martial law plan. Most likely, the leaders of the Thai army shortly will appoint a caretaker government, which will be made up of mostly conservative, royalist political figures. Unsurprisingly, the anti-government PDRC protestors who had been demonstrating for months to evict the elected government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and to put democracy on hold now are jubilant. The PDRC protestors have seemingly gotten exactly what they wanted—Yingluck is gone, the Puea Thai party is in disarray, and democracy has been put on hold. Whatever appointed government is put into place by the military likely will launch reforms that, in theory, could help cleanse Thailand’s political system of graft and vote buying but that, in reality, will be designed to try to ensure the Shinawatras and their political base are disempowered once and for all.

This will not be an easy task; in fact, it is probably impossible. The supporters of Puea Thai include both the majority of Thais and a small, hardened minority of activists who will be willing to fight the Thai military in Bangkok or in upcountry towns where these activists have more local support and more ability to launch guerilla attacks. Several Thai military officers told me that, indeed, they expect significant violent conflict in Bangkok with red shirt activists in the next two weeks, and that this conflict could be worse than the clashes in 2010 that burnt down parts of Bangkok and led to at least ninety deaths. Some senior army officers also do not trust that junior officers will follow through on commands to crack down on red shirts, particularly outside of Bangkok, where the red shirts are popular and some army officers have strong pro-red sympathies.

More broadly, any reforms instituted by an appointed government will, eventually, have to lead Thailand back to democratic politics, unless conservative Bangkok elites hope that they can forestall electoral democracy forever, which is unlikely. A previous round of reforms following the 2006 coup were expected to lessen the influence of the Shinawatra family in politics and reduce the power of the rural poor, who make up the majority of Thais and thus can dominate an election if they support one party. Even after those post-2006 reforms, rural-supported parties continued to win parliamentary elections, as they had since 2001, when Thaksin was first prime minister. The rural poor have been empowered electorally, and they just are not going to give up this vote. And, it will be nearly impossible to craft “reforms” that are real and yet also disenfranchise most voters.

The most likely near-term scenario is indeed major violence in Bangkok and, perhaps, in other parts of the country. After assuring American diplomats that it would not launch a coup, should the Thai military expect that the United States, its closest partner, will take the coup lightly, as it did after the 2006 Thai coup?

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by david

    I’m sure the USA government will loudly express its disapproval of the coup, but it fact, will continue on as they did after 2006. The US needs the support of the Thai military in its Asian pivot, especially in light of recent events in the South China Sea. They cannot afford to alienate a strong military “ally” in the area.

  • Posted by John Doe

    The Royal Thai Army does not represent the voice of the Thai population as a whole. General Prayuth, “you are a coward.”

  • Posted by Matt

    SBY will be out office in a few months, he can go as a UN or AESAN envoy and prevent civil war broker a road map for the military out of politics. They are not honest brokers they used subversion since the red shirts came to power again in the last election to bring about this coup.

  • Posted by bhc

    Might not moves to check rural electoral power be a combination of a) ‘turning’ some of that constituency by propaganda and sops – e.g. the decision to pay off the rice debt, b) writing a constitution that re-jigs power between elected and appointed members of the legislature & keeps control over those appointments in ‘safe’ hands? In other words the reforms will be directed at castrating elected governments of real power.

  • Posted by Panya K

    PUBLIC SERVANTS AND THE ARMED FORCES ARE THE INSTITUTES OF EVERY NATION THAT SHALL TIED INTO THE ROLES TO CHECK AND BALANCE AGAINST THE POLITICAL WING. WHENEVER THERE ARE UNJUST AND CORRUPTS IN THE COUNTRY SYSTEM, WIDESPREAD OF CORRUPTION AND LAWLESSNESS, WHILE THE POLITICAL SIDE NEGLECTS TO UPHOLD THE SPIRIT OF THE NATION; THEN IT MUST BE THE UNAVOIDABLE DUTIES OF PUBLIC CIVIL SERVANTS AND MILITARY TO PROLONG THE LIFE OR SURVIVAL OF THE NATION.
    FEW YEARS AGO, COUP D’ÉTAT CAN BE SEEN AS THE FUNCTION OF THE SURGEON GENERAL TO OPERATE AND GET RID OF THE BAD TUMORS. IT IS IMPORTANT TO CHECK WHAT CAN BE IMPROVED OR OVERHAULED. DANGEROUS WAYS OF THINKING MUST BE RECTIFIED AND NOT PERPETUALLY ALLOW MONEY POWER TO CHANGE EVIL TO BE RIGHTEOUSNESS OR OPPOSITELY. THE PARLIAMENT WITH OVERWHELM MAJORITY CAN EASILY TURNS TO BE PARLIAMENTARY DICTATORSHIP. WHEN POLITICIANS HAVE NO IDEOLOGY, POLITICS HAVE NO ETHICS AND GOVERNANCE MERITS, THEY BECOME POLITICAL INTEREST GROUPS OR MAFIA GANGS IN THE COVER OF POLITICAL PARTIES IN PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM. THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY, AS WRONG THINGS ARE TURNED TO BE RIGHT OR LEGAL THINGS AND THE ORGANIZATIONS ARE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY.
    ALL FRIENDS OF THAILAND WOULD LIKE TO SEND ALL GOOD WISHES TO THE THAIS TO OVERCOME ALL OBSTACLES FOR THE BETTER FUTURE. ALL SIGNIFICANT BARRIERS ARE CHALLENGING AND ARE NOT EASY TO OVERCOME. THAILAND HAD LOST IN THE LAST DECADE AND MANY HAVE CHANGED INCREDIBLY. SELF-AUTOCRATIC AND LAVISH STYLE OF LIFE ARE THE WIDE SPREAD BEHAVIOR AS NEVER BEFORE. PUBLIC SERVANTS ARE OUT OF THEIR TRACK, NEGLECT HONORABLE PRACTICES, GRASP GOOD AS BAD AND VICE VERSA, THEN SHAMELESSLY SURRENDER TO SERVE OUTSIDE THE NORMAL TRACK. THE PROVISION OF LAWS IS NOT RESPECTED BECAUSE POLITICS ARE UNETHICAL AND LACKING LEGITIMACY TO GOVERN.
    THAILAND NEVER LOST HER DIGNITY AS THE HONORABLE WITH DECENT BEHAVIOR HONESTY, GRATEFULNESS, AND APPRECIATION. THESE CHARACTERISTICS ARE THE KEYS THAT MAKE THAILAND THE RESPECTABLE AND RELIABLE IN THE WORLD COMMUNITY.

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