BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s army seized power in a May 22 coup, the Southeast Asian nation’s second in eight years. Here, four Associated Press correspondents who have been covering the crisis and the political turmoil leading up to it offer their insight into recent events:
Q: THAILAND IS KNOWN AS THE “LAND OF SMILES.” WHY IS THERE SO MUCH POLITICAL TURMOIL?
Thai society is undergoing major change, and politics over the past decade has in part been a battle between the old royalist ruling class and an ascendant majority based in the north and northeast that has benefited from development and has begun to see itself as a political force.
Much of that struggle has played out around one man – former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon deposed by a 2006 coup who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a prison sentence on a corruption conviction. The issue of whether to support or oppose Thaksin and his powerful political machine has divided friends, families and the nation.
Thaksin entered politics by founding his own political party and buying the loyalty of local political bosses nationwide. He won a landslide election in 2001, and once in office he cemented his popularity among Thailand’s rural and urban poor majority with unprecedented populist policies. Thaksin was often accused of being arrogant and for bullying critics, as well as a failure to keep private business interests separate from the business of government. This alienated the educated, urban middle class and alarmed traditional ruling circles – royalists and the military – who perceived in his naked ambition a desire to usurp the prerogatives of the throne, or even destroy the nation’s revered monarchy itself.
The 2006 coup might have ended the story, but monarchists and their allies sought to punish Thaksin and froze part of his fortune. He refused to accept his fate and resurrected his political party, while both sides mobilized proxy popular forces – the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” and the anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirts.” The latter evolved into the protest movement that had destabilized Bangkok since November in its bid to bring down the government.
Rules went out the window as the protesters’ battle for power resulted in violence. The courts and military were willing to turn a blind eye to acts of insurrection by demonstrators, enabling the political deadlock that served as the army’s excuse for this month’s coup.
OVER THE PAST DECADE, THAILAND’S POLITICAL CRISIS HAS LED TO RIOTS, PROTESTS AND EVEN THE BRIEF SHUTDOWN OF THE NATION’S MAIN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN BANGKOK. IS THAILAND STILL SAFE TO VISIT?
When the outside world hears the words “military coup,” it imagines tanks in the streets and a country under lockdown. That is not the scene in Thailand, where most things have remained the same. The military is trying to keep a low profile, and some people have remarked that they have seen troops only on TV. Some tourists say they are barely aware of the coup. Many have tweeted pictures from the country’s pristine resorts to show images of unaffected, peaceful beach paradises.
Schools across the country closed after the coup was announced, but they have since reopened. People have been going to work as normal, and stores and restaurants, like everything else, are open. The main impact has been on nightlife. A curfew has been in place since the army took power, but it was eased last week to midnight-4 a.m., and critical travel – like tourists travelling to or from airports – is still allowed.
READ MORE: Thai coup leaders summon influential family
That said, the nation’s political crisis remains unresolved and there is still a potential for protests, which have been small so far, to turn violent. More than 40 countries have issued travel alerts, mostly advising visitors to stay away from any protests. The United States elevated its warning to recommend that Americans postpone non-essential travel to the country, particularly to Bangkok.
SINCE TAKING OVER, THE MILITARY HAS ISSUED MORE THAN TWO DOZEN RESTRICTIONS AND EDICTS. HOW HAS THAT AFFECTED HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE RIGHT OF PEOPLE TO SPEAK FREELY?
The junta has made clear it will tolerate no dissent and issued warnings that it will crack down on any acts deemed “provocative.” Under the current circumstances, that has included the brief detention of people holding signs that say things like “Elections Now” or “Peace Please.” The junta, however, insists that individual rights are being upheld, no detainees have been abused and it is only trying to restore calm.
The edicts it imposed under century-old martial law provisions have had a considerable impact, though, especially for Thais who want to express or organize opposition to the military administration. Some activists and political opponents have fled the country. Human Rights Watch says the rights situation in Thailand is in a “free fall.”
The country’s military leaders have taken their censorship campaign online, too, vowing to crack down on anything that “could incite violence and divisiveness.” So far, authorities have blocked more than 300 websites. They also said they’d block individual posts and accounts deemed offensive on social media, including Facebook. A sudden interruption of access to Facebook on Wednesday – which was temporary and, according to the junta, just a glitch – was widely seen as a warning and has had a further chilling effect for online posts. Many users are moving to encrypted chat apps on their smartphones.
The junta has also banned political gatherings of five people or more. Nevertheless, defiance of the latest coup has been more prominent than after the country’s last one in 2006. Small groups of anti-coup protesters have rallied nearly daily. At first they tried to converge on the busy intersection at Bangkok’s Victory Monument, but junta authorities on Friday deployed more than 1,000 military and police officers to block access.
THE JUNTA IS VOWING TO ORGANIZE ELECTIONS NEXT YEAR AND RESTORE DEMOCRACY. WASN’T THAILAND ALREADY DEMOCRATIC?
The short answer is yes, it was. But the army always retained real power and the deep political rifts that had long polarized the country had also made it unstable.
The junta that now rules Thailand claims that the democracy practiced here has led to “losses” – a reference to the prolonged political deadlock and protests that have left 28 people dead and 800 injured since November. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha says the army had to intervene to restore order, and that the nation now needs time to change its “attitudes, values and several other things” before it is ready for a democracy that meets international standards.
The anti-government demonstrators, who wrought havoc in Bangkok for months by taking over government ministries and major intersections, are bent on destroying the various incarnations of Thaksin’s political machine. They say Thaksin and his allies “bought” rural voters with populist policies, then used their electoral majority to subvert the democratic system and impose their will.
The ousted government, on the other hand, had long argued that the nation’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army. They say the army is acting now only on behalf of the elite; the military’s plans for reform – including appointing an interim prime minister and redrawing the constitution – will most likely see laws tightened to make it tougher for Thaksin’s supporters to win elections. The reforms also mirror those of anti-government demonstrators, who helped create the political vacuum the army finally stepped into to seize power, leading many to believe they colluded against the government.
Both the junta and the ousted government agree that elections must eventually be held. But the army, like the anti-government demonstrators that had called for it to intervene, says there must be electoral reform – safeguards against the kind of vote-buying and corruption that allowed Thaksin-aligned governments to prevail. Critics say those claims are disingenuous, though, because nobody made serious complaints about the election mechanism in the past, including the 2011 vote that brought Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to power.
Thaksin’s supporters say the country won’t have true democracy until the influence of the Bangkok-based Thai establishment on the country’s courts and military is diluted – and the army starts supporting governments rather than overthrowing them.
© The Canadian Press, 2014