Editorial: A Cold War Coup

Anti-coup protesters in downtown Bangkok, 23 May 2014.

Yesterday’s military coup d’état was the latest addition to Thailand’s long history of military interventions.

Like so many other previous coupmakers, the military junta, which calls itself the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC), has claimed that their seizure of power was “necessary” to steer Thailand out of its political crisis.

But a look back to the most recent coup in 2006 shows that the last military intervention accomplished just the opposite.

In fact, the battle that’s been playing out on Bangkok’s streets for the past seven months was ignited precisely by the previous military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra eight years ago. 

Thakskin, a telecommunications tycoon with a history of corruption, won the hearts and votes of rural Thais with populist polices that supported the country’s long-neglected poor. 

When the military removed Thaksin in 2006, it was perceived by many as an attempt to eradicate the threat that Thaksin and and his electoral popularity posed to Thailand’s royalist establishment. The military’s decision to stage another coup yesterday suggests they learned a lesson from 2006: removing Thaksin wasn’t enough.

Instead of removing a challenge to Thailand’s old guard, the 2006 coup gave birth to a grass-roots, anti-establishment movement composed of rural farmers, urban poor, and progressive intelligentsia who are fed up with decades of conservative rule by elites.

The target of the 2006 coup was Thaksin. This time, it is the ascendant mass movement his ousting created.

Yesterday, the military decided to dissolve the Thaksin-backed Cabinet, but preserve the Senate, Courts, and so-called “independent” agencies that are all flagrant allies of Thailand's establishment. 

If the military's goal is to dismantle Thailand's new network of anti-establishment activists, the 2014 coup is poised to be far more authoritarian than any coup in the recent past. Silencing Thailand's "awakened" masses will require extreme suppression.

Under martial law, the military now is granted wide-spread authority to trample on a number of human rights. In its first day of rule alone, the military has already moved to censor the media, ban public demonstrations, and suspend the Constitution. A handful of Redshirt leaders have already been detained by the army, while scores of others have been summoned and banned from leaving the country.

This level of suppression in only the first 24 hours of military rule suggests that the 2014 coup will be much more oppressive than the last.

In fact, it feels like the clocks have been turned back to 1958, when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seized power with a military junta backed by the palace and the United States.

Back then, the military perceived itself as fighting a cosmic battle against an underground Communist movement that was attempting to “overthrow the monarchy” and “subvert the nation.”

In the decade that followed, the military relentlessly cracked down on social activists and rural leaders suspected of giving support to the Communists. Whether their connection to the Communists was real or imagined did not matter; in the eyes of the military dictators, they were all enemies of "the Nation, the Religion, and the Monarchy."

There is little evidence that Thailand’s armed forces have progressed beyond this Cold War mentality, raising concerns that the military may resurrect a sweeping crackdown on dissidents today. 

Following the 1958 coup, the military suspended all democratic institutions in Thailand for more than a decade, all on the pretext of preserving "national security" from the menace of "Red Threats."

There was no Constitution, parliament, or elections for more than ten years.

It is not clear whether the today’s coupmakers will take such a drastic step to prevent Thailand's new anti-establishment voices from speaking out as well. 

Thailand's still fragile democracy in the 21st century cannot afford to become a casualty of the 2014 coup.

In order to avoid this, the NPOMC must immediately cede power to a civilian administration that will restore Thailand's constitution and democracy by organising elections as soon as possible.  

 

 

 

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