Echoes of Past and Future Coups

Message to the World still.jpgNationalism’s all the fashion in Thailand just now.

by Marque A. Rome

“The head of the Council to Reform Democratic Government with the Great Monarch as Chief, having successfully seized power…offered as explanation that revocation of the Kingdom’s constitution was proclaimed in order to reverse deteriorating faith in how the land is administered. In addition, the aim was to overcome inefficiencies in government, and how inquiry into use of state power is conducted.

“Lack of the latter spread corruption far and wide, and that without any way to hold perpetrators accountable. As a result, violent political crises ensued in government and among the people. Factionalism prevailed, and ability to work together to solve problems was vanishing. Efforts from various sectors intended to solve looming social and existential crises were without effect.

“In fact the reverse happened: disputes doubled in violence, to the point that force was used, suggesting the possiblity of bloodshed and that people might lose their lives. Thus peace, government and the nation’s economic well-being were greatly endangered. An appropriate mechanism for administration whereby the problems might be solved in accord with Thai traditions of government had to be found….”

The above, believe it or not, is the sense not of the generals who formally seized power in Thailand yesterday, scrapping for the present both the elected caretaker government and the constitution enacted by referrendum in 2008. The wording is, in fact, taken more or less verbatim from the preamble of that much-maligned document.

Gen. Prayuth Janocha’s announcement yesterday that henceforth — and until such time as announced otherwise — the country will be ruled by the armed services via a Council for Maintaining National Peace and Order, headed by himself, was eerily reminiscent in its wording:

“Violent circumstances in Bangkok and other areas of the country,” he declared, “are leading to continual injury, loss of life and property by innocent people. In so far as the trend is that these events will intensify, thereby presenting possible security risks to the lives and property of people generally, and as means of swiftly returning the nation to its wonted peace, love, and cooperation, as well as to reform the political structure, economy, society and other matters, and in order to afford justice to all parties, the Council for Maintaining National Peace and Order…is compelled to take control of this country’s governing power.”

The 10.00 PM curfew declared thereafter was by no means strictly enforced last night, at least not in Phuket town. Who’s going to enforce it? Though the national police chief is a member of the governing board, it was surely not lost on members of the constabulary that in declaring martial law Tuesday the military relieved police of their responsibilities in Bangkok. I have seen no news yet of soldiers arriving in Phuket to take over security functions here, so perhaps, as that is obviously impolitic, nothing much will change on the ground.

Nonetheless the coup and curfew have brought changes that people will soon find rather hard to ignore — especially absence of their favourite TV programmes owing to suspension of normal broadcasts. The curfew was, reportedly, enforced last night in Patong. If it continues to be enforced there and in other tourist areas we can kiss good bye to tourism till circumstances return to normal and for perhaps a year or two thereafter owing to cancellation of advance bookings.

I think holidaymakers have little urge to vacation in places under martial law, so unless that ends soon will take a toll on the nation’s tourism economy. The move has anyway met with disapprobation from governments abroad and human rights organisations. Their perspective, however, appears much different than that prevailing among supporters of the coup, of which there are, I think, many millions.

That point of view is summarized in a video called ‘Message to the World from Thailand’ here. It is well worth considering. As a middle-aged, middle class woman said to me earlier today, “Foreigners don’t understand what’s going on here and have no right to judge, because their criticism amounts to interference in our internal affairs.”

Some think the generals over-reacted, especially people abroad. The arrest or summoning of political leaders from both sides, including the last three prime ministers, casts Thailand in an especially bad light. But people who haven’t heard the blood-and-guts declarations — emanating daily from the competing camps that brought Thailand nearly seven months of intensifying political crisis — are hardly in a position to judge.

No one in Thailand thinks Gen. Prayuth wanted to involve himself or the army in politics. In his statements he has always been modest, and nothing he ever did or said before suggested a hidden lust for power. The coup, then, was his last (and I think altruistic) choice to save the nation from disastrous civil conflict. His stated intention is to return the country to normal as soon as possible, and normality in Thailand includes civil government.

Other parties, whose agenda is quite different from his, may try  exciting further violence and division. The great danger is in thinking they were forestalled by the coup. I think the coup is what they were hoping for, as it conduces to still greater polarisation.

If that’s the case, Gen. Prayuth and the military may have a harder row to hoe than many now surmise before Thailand returns to normal.

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