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Thailand’s Tough Coup

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 9, 2014

A woman and her child walks past policemen standing guard as anti-coup protesters gather outside the Australian embassy in Bangkok on June 4, 2014 (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters). A woman and her child walks past policemen standing guard as anti-coup protesters gather outside the Australian embassy in Bangkok on June 4, 2014 (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters).

As the Thai coup settles into some kind of normality, the outlines of how this junta will act are becoming clear. As Leeds and Columbia University professor Duncan McCargo has written, this coup is proceeding far differently than other recent military takeovers in the kingdom. The timeline for returning power to the people through national elections is long and somewhat indeterminate, the military is cracking down on dissent much harder than it did in 2006 or even in the early post-coup 1990s, and the army seems intent on creating a cult of personality around it this time that has been absent for decades in Thailand. The military is reportedly launching Friday broadcasts to foster “happiness” in the kingdom, it is hauling in hundreds of journalists, academics, and activists for what are essentially old-school re-education sessions, and it even has ideas of trying to control and block social media outlets, including one of the most popular Thai social media outlets.

The junta even plans to create its own, state-dominated and state-monitored social media network, which is supposed to replace Facebook and other Thai social media outlets. Good luck with that.

Ultimately, any solution to Thailand’s ongoing crisis will come from Thais, and will come only when both the red and the yellow shirts are willing to compromise. The outlines of such a compromise have been evident to many Thais for years, though both Thaksin supporters and Thai elites have refused to wholeheartedly embrace such a compromise, which would include Thai elites conceding that they have to surrender some political power, and Thaksin supporters conceding that democracy must mean not only winning elections but also upholding the rule of law and basic democratic freedoms.

The coup is unlikely to change minds on either side of Thailand’s polarized politics, and probably will make the divide worse; red shirt leaders will shut up for a year or two, as long as the army remains in control and has a preponderance of force, and once the army releases its control, the red shirt movement likely will revive. Most of the Thaksin supporters I have spoken with suggest that, though they may sign pledges to abstain from politics (pledges usually made under duress at military detention centers) they have no plan to actually adhere to these pledges over the long run. And if the military hands power back to the electorate and King Bhumibhol is still alive, Bangkok’s royalist elites will have the same worries about succession (a fine summary of these worries here) that they have now, worries partly responsible for the coup.

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