Thailand’s military declared May 22 that it has taken control of the government for the good of the nation. The military’s actions now constitute a coup against the elected government, the 19th such military takeover in Thailand since 1932.
The latest development in the politically troubled South East Asian country follows an announcement of martial law on May 19. The armed forces still see themselves as the ultimate arbiter of power in the country.
Thai coups are historically bloodless and essentially part of the country’s cycle of politics.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha (second right)
announces the military coup in a televised address.
Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA
Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha will serve as acting Thai prime minister pending the appointment of a new prime minister. The military have denied rumours that a government in exile is being established or that armed clashes are occurring inside the country.
The actions by the Thai military come after a series of meetings between opposing political forces that the generals were mediating. Unfortunately, a compromise was unable to end the standoff that has crippled the Thai government for several years.
According to news reports, a fresh wave of protests was being planned for the coming weeks. Stashes of weapons were reportedly found among protesters suggesting the demonstrations were intended to quickly turn violent. Rather than let the situation deteriorate further, the military decided to intervene.
A political impasse in Thailand is almost a status quo. It is a reflection of centuries-old rivalries between the rural majority in the north and northeast of the country and the urban elite clustered in Bangkok.
Economic success both allowed the country to better balance the differences between the interests of rural and urban poor with those of the business elite and royalists. But it also has slowly wrenched the groups apart.
Adding to the problems this time is the responsibility of the aging King Bhumibol Adulyadei. He has not been as involved in the politics of Thailand in recent years due to rumours of failing health. His absence as an involved mediator has left a large hole in the reconciliation process.
The Crown Prince does not have the popular support necessary to act as a replacement for his father. Rumours that the royals could have some affinity with the Shinawatra family means their objectivity could be in question as well, putting their role as mediator in further doubt.
The ousted government of the Shinawatra family represents the political control of the Bangkok business elite. The recent protests have been generated by a deep dissatisfaction with the current politics emanating from the rural masses who demand more political representation.
Since the last coup in 2006, the political situation has been unstable between the two main political forces. Thailand has relatively weak democratic institutions so any political movements tend to result in violent street protests and clashes when they are not resolved through normal channels.
The military’s move to take control of the country is an attempt to put a lid on the deteriorating political discourse before it explodes once more. Neither of the political forces in Thailand could compromise which made a coup almost inevitable.
A Thai soldier stands guard in front of the
Democracy Monument after Thursday's coup. Pic: AP
The armed forces would not have acted if they didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, especially given how negatively the public reacted to the military during the previous coup in 2006.
It is unclear whether this military coup is being conducted in cooperation with the Privy Council or interim government, but it is unlikely.
The immediate security challenge for the armed forces now comes from the “Red Shirts” who are the supporters of the overthrown Shinawatra government.
Reports from Bangkok say the Royal Thai Army has already begun to detain Red Shirt leaders and block borders to prevent political leaders from leaving the country.
The next move for the military will be to extend its control outside the Bangkok city limits before large-scale protests can coalesce. Overnight, security forces tightened security in northeastern cities such as Udon Thani where Red Shirt supporters dominate.
The intervention by the military may delay confrontation between the two sides, but it does not provide an exit for the political stalemate. The coup will provoke pro-democracy supporters and escalate the conflict. Unrest will persist, but a civil war is unlikely in the near term.