Thailand has once again fallen victim to a military coup with the ouster of democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22nd. This is the latest of well over a dozen coups the country has experienced since the abolishment of its absolute Monarchy in 1932, and the ruling interim authority set up by the military, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has already taken harsh steps to preventing any dissent. Hundreds of political figures and activists have been arrested, martial law has been instituted, and a gathering of as few as five people can be sentenced to at least a year in prison for illegal assembly. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to civilians facing military trials and arbitrary arrests, warning that the sweeping measures adopted by the interim NPCO authority are setting the groundwork for a military dictatorship.
The coup has come after over seven months of ongoing political crisis that so far has claimed the lives of over two dozen people due to interspersed faction violence. The political divide in Thailand falls largely between the ‘yellow shirts,’ (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) who are primarily urban upper class and pro-Monarchist, and the mostly rural and urban lower class ‘red shirts’ (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship). The conflict between these two sides of society has only been worsened by the intervention of the military and their actions which have included the suspension of the constitution. Additionally, the NCPO has closed border crossings to Laos and Cambodia, imposed curfews, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared himself acting Prime Minister of the country.
In supporting ex-Prime Minister Yingluck, the red shirts have protested against the rampant interference in the political process after opposition yellow shirts blocked enough polling stations for the courts to declare the preliminary general elections invalid earlier this year. The yellow shirts opposed Yingluck and her brother and predecessor as Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for alleged corruption. Thaksin has lived outside of the country in exile since he was removed in a military coup in 2006. The yellow shirts thus sought reform and the immediate removal of Prime Minister Yingluck rather than scheduled elections. Now that the military junta has stepped in, the yellow shirts have won in regards to Yingluck’s ouster while the red shirts have further been marginalized and have vowed to continue to fight for their right to vote.
The King of Thailand, the longest ruling Monarch still in power today, still holds some important powers including his position as the leader of the armed forces and the head of state. The King’s official recognition of the NCPO and its leader General Prayuth, lent legitimacy to the coup and further complicated the process towards a representative government. Revered especially by the yellow shirts, King Adulyadej at age 86 is the symbol of consistency that many fear cause a chasm if his ailing health continues to worsen. Without the King, as encroaching military authority will have little trouble in solidifying its own interests at the expense of both political groups as has been seen by their actions so far. While the red shirts have been directly disenfranchised, the yellow shirts who are tacitly supporting this military takeover are assuredly feeling much less threatened. Nonetheless, the relationship between the yellow shirts and military will be very interesting to follow as it develops over time.
The actions of the armed forces and the protesters who both sides that took up violence or intimidation tactics to push their agendas has culminated in a government in the hands of a few highly connected military officers. If flashing the ‘Hunger Games’ salute can put you in jeopardy of going to prison, the outlook for the future for Thailand is not bright at the moment. The NPCO says it is acting in the interest of Thailand’s stability, and while creeping violence was previously an issue the ironfisted approach of removing Yingluck and clamping down on dissent has spun the country backwards. Curfews in key tourist locales have since been lifted by the military after tourism crashed in the country following the coup, but the authoritarian laws on the opposition groups are likely to stay for much longer.
Thailand as noted above is no stranger to military takeovers. While in the past the military has stepped back after time to allow governments to form again, all signs indicate that as soon as the elected leadership crosses a line with the armed forces or begins to threaten their authority, they jump back to take charge again. The denial of fair elections for the people of Thailand, notably the red shirts, underscores the difficulty the country will have in moving forward. Opposing authoritarian measures such as the limits on assembly and peaceful protest must continue to delegitimize the ruling military authority. Internationally support of the Thai people who seek democratic reform, regardless of their political affiliation, can expose the nature of the military junta and facilitate further pressure to reform more quickly. The red shirts demanded the right to vote and were denied, so now it is time to see if the reform the yellow shirts pressed for will actually take place.