Thailand: A Different Kind Of Coup, Even By Local Standards

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June 15, 2014: The army may not be a big believer in democracy but it does grasp the essentials of maintaining good will. This the military is enacting many of the same populist economic policies that the recently overthrown government backed. This includes some practices labeled corrupt (subsidies to rice farmers) by the royalists who back the coup. Thailand coups tend to be of the “time out” variety with the generals shutting down democracy so all sides can cool off and back away from the civil war the generals say they are trying to prevent. The politicians (usually the royalists) tolerate the occasional coup if it benefits them, but in general the politicians would prefer that the military stay out of politics. This new attention of the economy and social media is unsettling to the politicians as it shows the generals are being more realistic, and in control, than before.

The coup comes after months of political protests in the capital continue. The royalist and nationalist politicians and parties (yellow shirts) that lost the national elections in 2011 failed after numerous attempts to take power until recently when the royalist Constitutional Court ruled that the elected premier had to resign and installed a temporary premier until elections could be held. The red shirts saw all this is another illegal ploy by the royalists to thwart the will of the people and retained power because red shirt politicians still control a majority of the seats in parliament and have the right to appoint a temporary prime minister. Red shirts also point out that Constitutional Court first declared the February 2nd elections (which the elected prime minister called to show that she still had majority support) invalid because some voting places were blocked by mobs of yellow shirt protestors. It’s generally agreed that this court decision was absurd and the populists demand that the recently deposed populist prime minister be reinstated or that new elections be held as soon as possible. While the elected prime minister was accused of corruption, her supporters point out that these legal moves by the royalists are dishonest and just another form of corruption. The army saw a deadlock and stepped in.

Most Thais are fed up with the coups. There have been twelve of them in the last 80 years (since a constitutional monarchy replaced the centuries old absolute monarchy). The royals have learned to keep their heads down, even though the military has always been staunchly royalist. Where the army may run into problems is with their vaguely defined plans to enact “reforms” and amend the constitution. Unless the army does the impossible, and shuts down access to social media sites like Facebook, popular resistance to whatever the proposed reforms are will have an Internet platform on which to spread and grow. Troops have orders to arrest anyone who appears to be leading resistance to the coup, but the number of anti-coup is so widespread that trying to decapitate the opposition by taking most leaders out of action will not work. The opposition has plenty of competent replacements for lost leaders.

Pro-democracy Thais have also become more adept in opposing the coup, making greater use of social media even as the army makes very deliberate efforts to control that media. But as China has discovered, even when you employ an enormous Internet censorship bureaucracy and some very effective technology, the unwelcome (by the government) messages still get through. Moreover sites like Facebook are tremendously popular in Thailand, by royalists and populists alike. Thus the army was forced to come out and say it would never shut down Facebook access in Thailand. Pro-democracy groups are organizing flash mobs and generally keeping their efforts in front of Thais and especially foreign media. Nevertheless the military will probably be able to maintain control until late 2015 and then hold elections. Most Thais, especially the populist “red shirts” what elections sooner. While the red shirts have lots of popular support, most Thais are more interested in economic issues and as long as the army deals with this there will not be a lot of widespread opposition to the generals. The economic problems cannot be ignored. The GDP contracted 2.1 percent in the first three months of 2014 and that contraction appears to be continuing. Unemployment is still low (1-2 percent) but income is declining as are opportunities for getting better jobs. Most Thais remember that in all the post-World War II coups (1951, 1957, 1958, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1991, 2006) the economy improved after the army took over. So the army is paying attention to economic problems.

One of the many unexpected side effects of the coup is the movement of thousands of illegal migrants back across the border. The illegals are doing this in anticipation of a military crackdown on refugees. This is largely rumor, and it was most common among Cambodians. Over 80,000 of these illegal Cambodians have already fled Thailand.  The Islamic terrorists in the south have quieted down a bit, apparently waiting to see if there will be any major changes regarding the separatist violence down there.

June 13, 2014: The military lifted the nationwide midnight to 4 AM curfew. Over the past week the curfew had been lifted in 30 of the most peaceful 47 provinces.

June 3, 2014: In the south (Pattani province) two encounters with Islamic terrorists left two soldiers dead.

May 29, 2014:  In the south an Islamic terrorist bomb wounded ten people.

May 28, 2014: A recent survey to measure unhappiness in countries (using things like unemployment, high crime rates, economic growth rate, inflation, shortages, high prices, political strife and so on) ranked Thailand in the top five “least miserable” countries. Japan was at the top of the least miserable (89th out of 89 nations ranked) followed by Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand (85 out of 89). The U.S. ranks 71st while China came in at 82. Misery often leads to instability and an atmosphere where criminal activity flourishes. As long as the army keeps Thais from becoming more miserable, all will be well. Venezuela as the most miserable country in the world while the other nine nations at the top of the most miserable nations are Iran, Serbia, Argentina, Jamaica, Egypt, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and Greece.

May 27, 2014: The U.S. criticized the Thai military for delaying new elections for a year or more. The U.S. is cutting off aid but given the strength of Thailand’s economy this loss will not have much impact.

May 24, 2014: In the south (Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces) Islamic terrorist bombs and gunfire killed three and wounded 55.

May 22, 2014: The army stepped in removed the elected government. Several hundred government officials and pro-government protest leaders were detained (most were soon released) and the 80 year pattern of one or more coups per decade continues. Within a few days the army had taken over all the major ministries and dismissed parliament. Until new elections the army leadership will pass new laws (which can be repealed by the next elected government, something that does not always happen.) The army plans to have its own people running most major government departments by September and to hold new elections in late 2015. This coup was a bit different in that army leaders met with politicians from all major parties after the coup, trying to arrange a peaceful and orderly transition back to democracy.

May 20, 2014: The army invoked martial law, an action that usually precedes a coup. The government is deadlocked after royalist judges removed the elected prime minister and the new government is under attack by both royalists and the populists (who have the support of most Thais and control the current parliament). The U.S. and most of the West backed the martial law, but not the coup that followed.

April was another bad month for the economy, making 13 straight months of shrinking factory production.

 

 

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