from Asia Unbound

The U.S. Response to Thailand’s Coup

May 22, 2014

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So, the Thai military has now made real what, in effect, it had already done earlier this week—launched a coup and taken over the powers of government. The armed forces now have posted troops around Bangkok, dispatched ministers from the previous civilian government, abrogated the standing constitution (except for a few articles) and passed harsh new censorship decrees as part of their martial law plan. Most likely, the leaders of the Thai army shortly will appoint a caretaker government, which will be made up of mostly conservative, royalist political figures. Unsurprisingly, the anti-government PDRC protestors who had been demonstrating for months to evict the elected government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and to put democracy on hold now are jubilant. The PDRC protestors have seemingly gotten exactly what they wanted—Yingluck is gone, the Puea Thai party is in disarray, and democracy has been put on hold. Whatever appointed government is put into place by the military likely will launch reforms that, in theory, could help cleanse Thailand’s political system of graft and vote buying but that, in reality, will be designed to try to ensure the Shinawatras and their political base are disempowered once and for all.

This will not be an easy task; in fact, it is probably impossible. The supporters of Puea Thai include both the majority of Thais and a small, hardened minority of activists who will be willing to fight the Thai military in Bangkok or in upcountry towns where these activists have more local support and more ability to launch guerilla attacks. Several Thai military officers told me that, indeed, they expect significant violent conflict in Bangkok with red shirt activists in the next two weeks, and that this conflict could be worse than the clashes in 2010 that burnt down parts of Bangkok and led to at least ninety deaths. Some senior army officers also do not trust that junior officers will follow through on commands to crack down on red shirts, particularly outside of Bangkok, where the red shirts are popular and some army officers have strong pro-red sympathies.

More broadly, any reforms instituted by an appointed government will, eventually, have to lead Thailand back to democratic politics, unless conservative Bangkok elites hope that they can forestall electoral democracy forever, which is unlikely. A previous round of reforms following the 2006 coup were expected to lessen the influence of the Shinawatra family in politics and reduce the power of the rural poor, who make up the majority of Thais and thus can dominate an election if they support one party. Even after those post-2006 reforms, rural-supported parties continued to win parliamentary elections, as they had since 2001, when Thaksin was first prime minister. The rural poor have been empowered electorally, and they just are not going to give up this vote. And, it will be nearly impossible to craft “reforms” that are real and yet also disenfranchise most voters.

The most likely near-term scenario is indeed major violence in Bangkok and, perhaps, in other parts of the country. After assuring American diplomats that it would not launch a coup, should the Thai military expect that the United States, its closest partner, will take the coup lightly, as it did after the 2006 Thai coup?