Nearly seven years have passed since Gen Prayut Chan-ocha was repeatedly pressed by a throng of reporters as to whether there would be a military coup.
Back in late 2013 and early 2014, Prayut was then the army chief and Yingluck Shinawatra prime minister.
Massive protests by anti-Yingluck groups led by the likes of Suthep Thuaghsuban and multi-color-shirt supporters rocked the capital.
Then army chief Prayut kept denying, denying and denying to the press. He reassured them that there won’t be any coup. I lost count as to how many times Prayut had denied but I think 10 times, give or take, would be most reasonable. Then boom came the May 22 coup led by Prayut.
Now, as former junta leader and current prime minister, Prayut didn’t take the same question very well.
When asked on Tuesday, he moodily told reporters at the Government House to go home.
“Hey! Go on, go home,” the premier said and then began walking away from the lectern.
Yet Prayut couldn’t stop dwelling on the rumour of a possible coup in the wake of heightened protests against him, calls to reform the monarchy and sightings of military vehicles heading to Bangkok over the weekend. The army, not surprisingly, flatly denied they are cooking a coup to serve Prayut, adding that it’s just a drill for new recruits that would last until Tuesday.
Prayut didn’t take the idea of a coup while he’s still in power very well.
“Who? Who’s staging a coup?” the former coup leader asked.
Reporters’ suggestions that it’s the army that may be behind the coup was greeted with more negative emotions: “It’s sloppy of you to ask questions like this.”
Make what you will of Prayut’s and the army’s replies, but here’s why I think there may, or may not be, a military coup soon.
Why may there be a coup in the near future:
1) The army and those behind fears that the politicized youths are getting out of control, that ideology critical of the monarchy is spreading rapidly online and on the streets.
So something needs to be done to suppress them and Prayut no longer has absolute power since the March 2019 elections. The time to extinguish a fast spreading new political awareness among the youth seen as a threat to the monarchy is now.
2) Army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong will retire by the end of this month. If he wants to be the new junta leader, it’s best to do it within the next two weeks, or by September 30 to be exact, or when he can still command troops.
By the way, unlike then army chief Prayut, Apirat has never committed himself to not staging a coup. So if he staged one in the week or two, at least you can’t blame him for lying, unlike Prayut.
3) Prayut is becoming so unpopular that even coalition-party MPs have been openly criticizing him for the diminished state of Thai economy and more.
4) Statistics show that since the revolt which ended absolute monarchy in 1932, ‘successful’ coups on average occur around once every seven years or so. The last ‘successful’ coup was in May 2014, it’s now late 2020.
Mind you, a military coup in Thailand could also include a so-called ‘auto-coup’, a coup against oneself, in order to further solidify powers and to exercise absolute power. When elected or semi-elected power no longer ensures enough power, an auto coup is a possibility.
After a coup in 1957 and subsequent elections where his allies became premier, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged yet another ‘successful’ coup against his own elected clique, then led by Lt Gen Thanom Kittikachorn as PM, in 1958, when the government was losing control of parliament. So don’t rule out Prayut just yet staging a coup against, or rather for himself, just yet!
Now, these are also four reasons why there may not be a coup in the foreseeable future.
1) The economy is really in a deep coronavirus-induced crisis and anyone wanting to stage a coup will find himself between a rock and a very hard place. It’s definitely not an enviable time to be running corporate Thailand and a coup will make investment climate even worse.
2) It’s uncertain whether a coup can succeed given the widespread political awareness and level of agitation among young and not-so-young demonstrators. You end up committing an act of treason if your coup failed. Ane the maximum penalty is death.
3) The idea that someone will have absolute power, even if in letters, may no longer be fashionable to the powers that be in the era of King Rama X.
4) How will Trump’s USA and the EU react? Thailand may not be able to deal with any boycotts given the current economic crisis.
So, coup or no coup? Which will it be for a nation where smooth transition of power is less common than seizure of powers?