The Thai military has seized power after nine months of disruptive protests by pro-military royalists, the Yellow Shirts, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The military coup delivers on a key demand of the Yellow Shirts, deposing the democratically-elected Pua Thai government. This exposes the declared “neutrality” of the coup as a lie.
The junta, calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has dissolved the Senate and banned gatherings of five or more people. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the coup, announced the suspension of elections for at least a year, “depending on the situation.” This, he says will be necessary “in order to mend our democratic system” and ensure “peace and order.”
Since the coup on 22 May there has been a massive crackdown on dissent. The military has rounded up hundreds of journalists, progressive academics and pro-democracy Red Shirt activists. Most have been interrogated and released, after being warned not to organise opposition to the coup.
In early June a taxi driver was imprisoned for lèse majesté (insulting the King) after a passenger reported him to police. Plain-clothes police and soldiers have kidnapped people off the street.
Meanwhile, the opposition Democrat Party, its leader Suthep Thaugsuban and their Yellow Shirt supporters, all remain unmolested despite the violence they displayed in their protests and their armed intimidation of voters during February’s elections.
Red shirt, yellow shirt
Since the last military coup in 2006, Thailand has grown increasingly divided between Red Shirts, supporters of the Pua Thai party and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra; and Yellow Shirts, supporters of the traditional Thai elite and the monarchy.
The middle-class Yellow Shirts resent the electoral dominance of Pua Thai, whose prime ministers Yingluck Shinawatra, and her predecessor and brother Thaksin Shinawatra, won widespread popularity among the urban and rural poor for their policies such as rural employment projects, rice subsidies and cheap healthcare.
Whereas in 2001 when Thaksin was first elected 84 per cent of the national budget flowed to the capital, leaving only 16 per cent to the provinces, this year rural areas received a quarter.
But Thaksin is no man of the people. His chief aim was to modernise Thai society, for which his background as a billionaire telecommunications tycoon qualified him well. After being embroiled in corruption scandals, he fled to Dubai, but was believed to be pulling the strings in his sister’s government behind the scenes.
Unable to defeat the government through elections, Yellow Shirt protesters call for the “restoration of an absolute monarchy.”
Renewed protests began in December last year against a bill that would have granted amnesty to Thaksin for corruption charges on the one hand, and exonerated those responsible for the military crackdown in 2010 that killed 90 Red Shirt protesters on the other.
In an attempt to diffuse the crisis Yingluck dissolved parliament and held elections in February. The Democrat Party, linked to the Yellow Shirts and military, boycotted the elections and harassed voters. This was used as an excuse for the courts to annul the result. Yingluck was then deposed by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power.
The junta’s actions reveal the patronising contempt in which the Thai masses are held by the royalists and their military allies. A recently announced “happiness project” involves soldiers in uniform singing to “cheer up” the public, providing free meals, haircuts and distributing sweets and snacks. The Thai elites’ attitude to the majority is that they are “too stupid to deserve the right to vote.”
In the face of this vicious crackdown, the official leadership of the Red Shirts, who are close to the Pua Thai Party, have failed to organise resistance. Pua Thai hopes to come to an accommodation with the military, as it did in 2011 when it struck a deal with military leaders to return to power.
In contrast, despite the repression and intimidation, thousands of Thais in Bangkok came out in spontaneous anti-coup protests and flash mobs in the days immediately following the coup. In some cases protesters chased police and soldiers off the streets and flashed the defiant three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games.
An Anti-Coup Workers Group released a statement condemning the coup as an attack on civil liberties that drastically limits workers’ ability to organise.
They write, “In previous history, workers have always had an important role in the fight against the dictatorship. In the past, after previous coups, military governments have issued new laws that severely limit workers’ rights.”
Only a reinvigorated movement of the Red Shirts and other pro-democracy activists independent of the elite leadership of Thaksin and Pua Thai can restore and extend democracy in Thailand.
By Lachlan Marshall