Opinion: Silent Semi-Military Coup and the Normalization of Indirect Military Rule

Protesters burn a symbolic coffin during a protest against the Constitutional Court's decision to suspend Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat from his MP duties pending its ruling on whether he violated election law at the Democracy Monument on July 19, 2023.
Protesters burn a symbolic coffin during a protest against the Constitutional Court's decision to suspend Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat from his MP duties pending its ruling on whether he violated election law at the Democracy Monument on July 19, 2023.

What happened on July 13, and again on the past Wednesday, July 19, was nothing short of a silent semi-military coup which succeeded in twice rejecting and removing Move Forward Party PM candidate Pita Limjaroenrat from the PM race. It now will most likely succeed in pushing the party, which won the most seats in the general election, into the opposition camp and possibly more.

No tanks have patrolled the streets of Bangkok over the past week as it was not needed unlike in the conventional military coup. There was no announcement by any coup leader on television. And there was no summoning of opponents of the silent putsch to be detained for “attitude adjustment.”

Yet it was very effective, stealth even. Pita, arguably the most popular politician in a generation and for the past two months since the May 14 general election victory, the presumptive new prime minister has been rejected by the junta-appointed senators twice and is no longer able to be nominated again.

On Wednesday, not only was Pita overwhelmingly rejected by the senators in a bicameral vote to determine whether his name could be renominate after some parliamentarians cited Regulations 41 (which basically states that a rejected motion cannot be resubmit for a second vote unless there is a good reason to believe the outcome would be different), but the Constitutional Court, which came to power via the selection process of various junta-appointed bodies including the senate itself, suspended Pita from his duty as MP pending the decision on whether Pita is unfit to be an member of parliament due to his shareholding of the defunct ITV media.

In the weeks ahead, the Constitutional Court may even ban Pita from politics for 10 years along with all of the party executive committee members and dissolve the party itself if they ruled the party is undermine the democratic system with the king as head of state through their pledge to reform the controversial lese majeste law.

Tell me if this is not a silent coup. What we are seeing is the legacy organs of the military junta robbing the will of the people who clearly expressed themselves during the general election two months ago yet again. In a way, it is more effective and less blatant than having tanks on the traffic-choke streets of Bangkok and armed soldiers dispatched to guard television stations to make sure their coverage of the current affairs is sympathetic.

Yet the response by the so-called pro-democracy camp has not been unified. This is due to the fact that the other major rival “pro-democracy” party, the Pheu Thai Party, whose de facto leader in exile is fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is now, as I write these words, juggling for power and soliciting support from parties that used to either support or were in bed with junta leader Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha.

In the days ahead, we could see a new coalition led by Pheu Thai emerging but without Move Forward. This is why many die-hard redshirt supporters will not be joining the numerous angry street protests anytime soon. These Pheu Thai supporters love their party and leaders too much; they see the silent coup as an opportunity for the Pheu Thai Party which lost to rival Move Forward Party by four million votes, or 10 MP seats, to lead the new government and get its own PM.

For months prior to the May general election, the rivalries within the so-called pro-democracy camp have turned toxic – and that might be an understatement as some Pheu Thai supporters publicly celebrate the silent coup over the past ten days. The pro-democracy camp is split, unlike in the aftermath of the May 2014 military coup which was led by Prayut.

One other key factor is the normalization of the militarization of Thai society and rules over the past nine years. Most Thai media simply refer to the junta-appointed senators as “senators,” and not “junta-appointed senators,” and the ludicrous fact that these 250 unelected senators command one third of the bicameral vote for new PM along with the 500 elected MPs is no longer scandalous for many news analysts who just accepted it as the rules.

The 151 elected MPs from Move Forward Party, with 14 million votes behind them, have much less say in the bicameral vote when compared to the 250 senators who were basically appointed by one man – then junta leader Gen. Prayut.

This special junta-appointed senatorial powers, which are good for five years under the current 2017 junta-sponsored constitution that narrowly passed a referendum under the threat that if people do not approve it, the military junta will be in power even longer, are no longer seen as an anomaly or cheating by many in the mainstream mass media and political analysts.

By not pointing out the systemic rigging of the rules, they end up acting as a lubricant to enable this silent semi-military coup and prolong military influence, to be acceptable – normal even.