Coup of Hap­pi­ness?

The peo­ple of Thai­land have proved that they are un­will­ing to put up with the re­stric­tions of the army.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Si­jal Fawad

Even though Thai­land’s Army Chief Gen­eral Prayuth Chan-ocha may call his takeover a ‘har­mo­niz­ing’ coup, the re­al­ity is not so rosy.

Po­lit­i­cal chaos rarely has a happy end­ing and the beau­ti­ful coun­try Thai­land is no ex­cep­tion. The first fe­male Prime Min­is­ter of the coun­try, Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra was ousted by the Thai con­sti­tu­tional court in May for trans­fer­ring the na­tional se­cu­rity head, who was ap­pointed by the op­po­si­tion­led ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2011. Changes at the higher level were so abrupt that even the elec­tions sched­uled by Shi­nawa­tra could not take place.

Fol­low­ing her de­par­ture from the gov­ern­ment, a care­taker gov­ern­ment was in­stalled. How­ever, the en­su­ing

vi­o­lent protests by var­i­ous gov­ern­ment and anti-gov­ern­ment fac­tions forced the Thai Army to de­clare martial law in the coun­try. Later, af­ter only two days of fu­tile talks between po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the Thai Army also de­clared a coup on May 22.

Even though the man be­hind the coup – Army Chief Gen­eral Prayuth Chan-ocha – may stress on it be­ing a ‘har­mo­niz­ing’ coup with a ‘Hap­pi­ness’ song, the re­al­ity is not so rosy. The real pic­ture of the coup de­picts a highly re­stricted and mon­i­tored me­dia, gov­ern­ment min­istries in­fil­trated with men in green and politi­cians and lead­ers in de­ten­tion. In fact, with jour­nal­ists be­ing threat­ened, the so­cial me­dia be­ing reg­u­lated and penal­ties be­ing im­posed for voic­ing dis­sent, a Thai aca­demic has com­pared the cur­rent-day Thai­land to the so­ci­ety de­picted in Ge­orge Or­well’s novel 1984!

Thai­land’s his­tory of coups, with the first one im­posed in 1932, had largely been a re­flec­tion of so­ci­ety’s de­tach­ment from the po­lit­i­cal sphere in gen­eral. Pol­i­tics was merely a power game, with mil­i­tary and civil­ian lead­ers show­ing lit­tle re­gard for the good of the peo­ple. This lack of public in­volve­ment changed in 1992 when the peo­ple fought back for civil­ian rule af­ter the 17th coup in the coun­try. This even­tu­ally led to the restora­tion of a civil­ian gov­ern­ment and ush­ered in po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity for some time.

This time around, what is in­ter­est­ing is not the man­ner in which the coup was en­acted or the army’s in­sis­tence that the peo­ple stay ‘happy’ with it, but the trans­for­ma­tion of the Thai so­ci­ety into a po­tent force that is aware of its po­lit­i­cal rights and of the need for a free so­ci­ety with democ­racy. That the pro­tes­tors have un­leashed their wrath and ex­pressed their dis­dain at yet an­other takeover by the army does not come as a sur­prise any­more con­sid­er­ing the chang­ing think­ing pat­terns of the peo­ple of Thai­land who are es­pous­ing lib­eral views. The level of po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness among the Thais at this point in time is no­tice­ably higher than it has even been in the coun­try’s his­tory. Peo­ple are un­will­ing to put up with new re­stric­tions and strin­gent rules im­posed by the army, with pro­tes­tors brazenly hold­ing de­ri­sive plac­ards and putting up se­ri­ous re­sis­tance to the mil­i­tary po­lice.

So with a more so­cially aware and ad­vanced so­ci­ety, a far cry from the ru­ral so­ci­ety which ex­isted up un­til a few decades back and which was mired in pa­ter­nal­is­tic rule, the peo­ple of Thai­land do not seem to be as pli­able as the army would have an­tic­i­pated. Past mil­i­tary coups, fi­nan­cial crises and blind au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism has helped al­ter opin­ions, mold­ing them into a more aware and po­lit­i­cally con­scious force.

In fact, Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra be­longs to the party that cham­pi­oned this change, led by her brother Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra. Thus, in a way, the long­stand­ing his­tory of mil­i­tary coups and dic­ta­to­rial regimes is what ac­tu­ally trig­gered the rise of a chang­ing so­ci­ety. With this kind of a chal­lenge at hand, the Thai Army will have to be pre­pared to use some mus­cle which will, quite ob­vi­ously, not add to its pop­u­lar­ity amongst the masses.

Economic con­se­quences are an­other as­pect that will serve as fod­der for fur­ther ig­nit­ing the rage of the pro­tes­tors. Ev­i­dence sug­gests that economic growth slows down af­ter a coup. In Thai­land’s case, the ad­di­tional mil­i­tary spend­ing required to sus­tain the takeover – es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the U.S.’s threat to stop mil­i­tary aid to the coun­try – could be one of the causes for de­cel­er­at­ing the economic growth and also for the pop­u­la­tion’s dis­dain.

What fur­ther adds to the in­sta­bil­ity of this coup is the lack of any de­fined agenda by the army. Po­lit­i­cal and economic sta­bil­ity may be the ul­ti­mate goal, but the def­i­nite means for achiev­ing th­ese goals have not been pro­nounced by the Thai Army. Pun­ish­ing peo­ple for prop­a­gat­ing democ­racy, whisk­ing away those who sit in silent and peace­ful op­po­si­tion, and lit­er­ally block­ing off Thai­land’s con­nec­tions with the world through a heav­ily con­trolled me­dia does not seem to be the op­ti­mal strat­egy to fol­low.

The con­se­quent ef­fects on the coun­try’s economic growth and chang­ing par­a­digms are also a cause for con­cern. Given the cur­rent stance of the mil­i­tary, one will be hard-pressed to be­lieve that the sit­u­a­tion will re­main hunky-dory even af­ter the army clears out. That’s why a sound agenda and strat­egy, backed by thor­ough deal­mak­ing and ne­go­ti­a­tions, seems to be the or­der of the day rather than the ruth­less ex­tra­di­tion of pro­tes­tors un­der the guise of a ‘Hap­pi­ness’ song.

That the mil­i­tary rule will come to an end is a no-brainer be­cause it even­tu­ally will, like it has been in the past. Gen­eral Prayuth has in­di­cated that a tem­po­rary con­sti­tu­tion will be put in place by Septem­ber. How­ever, it will be a year be­fore the new gen­eral elec­tions will take place. Thank­fully though, the na­tion­wide cur­few has been lifted to cur­tail some dam­age to the coun­try.

But this time around, while pack­ing its bags, the mil­i­tary would have learned that the more po­lit­i­cally con­scious Thai pop­u­la­tion is a force to be reck­oned with. Hope­fully, this will dis­cour­age the army from in­dulging in any such a mis­ad­ven­ture in the future. How­ever, a more im­por­tant point for con­tem­pla­tion is not whether or not the army will go back to the bar­racks but how the coup will af­fect an ad­vanc­ing na­tion’s econ­omy and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. One hopes that the ris­ing power of the peo­ple will save the coun­try from fur­ther chaos and help re­store demo­cratic rule and free­dom of speech sooner rather than later.

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