BANGKOK — In an ongoing effort to soften the public perception of its military takeover on 22 May, the Thai military junta has announced it does not like the word “coup.”
“I try not to use the word coup, because I feel that what we are doing at the moment is quite different, completely different than what happened in the past,” a spokesperson for the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) said at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok last night.
Col. Werachon Sukondhapatipak said he preferred to use the phrase “military intervention.”
Since becoming a constitutional democracy in 1932, Thailand has experienced 22 coup attempts, 13 of which were successful. The Thai army staged its most recent putsch last month and has since announced plans to govern the country until October, after which it will appoint an interim government to carry out national reforms. The junta says elections will not be held for at least another 15 months, and only if “conditions are stable.”
There is wide agreement that this military takeover is different from the most recent coup in 2006 — but not because it is less “coup-like” as Col. Werachon suggested.
Rather, many experts have observed that this military takeover is different because the junta is exercising its authoritarian powers more harshly and extensively than in any coup in Thailand's recent past.
“This is worse than previous coups,” a political science lecturer at university in Bangkok told Khaosod English. “Because in [1991 and 2006], the military held onto power for a short time and then they organized a technocrat government to take care of all these economic issues for them. The NCPO on the other hand, their actions look more like the military regimes of the 1950s and 1960s."
The NCPO says it plans to maintain control of the country’s administration until October, which is the longest any junta has held onto power since 1971. The coupmakers say it was necessary to seize power in order to resolve the political conflict that led to paralysing street protests and sporadic violence between Thailand's rival political factions over the past six months.
Since seizing power, the junta has banned all forms of peaceful political expression, raided homes without search warrants, censored the media, and summoned and detained hundreds of politicians and activists, all under the banner of "returning happiness to the Thai people."
Last night, the NCPO spokesperson said he doesn't like the word "detention” either.
“I don’t like the word detention,” Col. Werachon said, “Because the conditions that happen are quite different.”
He went on to list the amenities provided to detainees, which include “air conditioning,” “good food,” and “all kinds of activities that make the time pass quickly.”
“Is this detention?” Col. Werachon asked.
Col. Werachon said the army bars detainees from having any contact with the outside world in order to provide them with a “cooling-off period.” This is a necessary part of the junta’s goal to reconcile the country’s political divisions and “return happiness” to the people, he said.
“We talk to them, we try to convince them to put the country’s interests before their own,” Col. Werachon said. “We don’t want them to have information from the outside. We just want them to be on their own.”
Many of those who have been released from military custody have confirmed that they were treated well, aside from being aggressively interrogated and subjected to various forms of “psychological warfare.”
However, those who do not report to the military soon after receiving a summons order can face up to two years in prison. A well-known Redshirt leader and anti-coup activist, Sombat Boonngamanong, is expected to face trial in martial court for defying a summons order and organising anti-coup protests on social media. Col. Werachon said he does not consider Mr. Sombat to be a "political prisoner."
The military has released the majority of its detainees within seven days, which is the upper limit under martial law. However, Human Rights Watch has identified at least one case in which a Redshirt activist has been held in an undisclosed location for more than two weeks.
Col. Werachon said that no more than 15 people are currently being held by the military.
“We ask people to refrain from expressing any political views because we believe that this is not the time,” said Col. Werachon. “We are trying to adjust the mood and tone of society.”