23 February 2019
Soldiers stand guard at the criminal court in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on May 26. Photo: Reuters
Soldiers stand guard at the criminal court in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on May 26. Photo: Reuters

Thailand: A week after the military coup

On May 22, I was at my workplace at 5 pm local time in Bangkok, preparing to leave for home. Suddenly all television channels were linked to a common feed: the Royal Thai Armed Forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha has just declared a coup d’état, establishing the National Council for Peace and Order or NCPO as a governmental body. Authorities claimed the move will put an end to six months of political turmoil and bring peace to the nation.

As the television images ran, I felt shock and was also filled with deep sorrow. This was the third coup in my life time. However, many of my colleagues were happy with the military’s action, seeing the move as necessary to break the political stalemate. Maybe this is what many Thai people have been getting used to as they have been educated in national history, a society with a glory of heroes.

The coup in 2014 is different from the one in 2006 as the rules now are more intensive and more aggressive. Many announcements have been issued and are still being done. The matters included issues such as curfew, request for cooperation, summoning of politicians and activists, use of military court with civil defendants, and so on.

Television and radio stations were occupied by the army and they were off-air right after the coup was declared. Although nowadays people are able to watch and listen to television and radio again, NCPO has requested all media to broadcast only positive content on the new regime. Some media organizations expressed concern, but it was not strong.

In fact, some media workers have praised the coup. Others who opposed the constraints on press freedom found social media a useful channel to reach their audiences. Any physical resistance is uneasy for Thai journalists as press is heavily warned not to disturb the army’s peace intention.

As freedom of expression is limited, internet is not a secure place either. Some people deactivated their Facebook accounts or at least stayed quiet. People and public figures who opposed the rules are continuously detained, officially and secretly.

According to data from Prachatai blogazine’s detention list on May 27, barely six days after the military’s takeover, the number of detainees including politicians, academics, activists, journalists, civilians and students rose to 300. And there was the possibility of more to come. Some of the detainees were released while some cannot be tracked.

As media is asked to provide only positive coverage, secret detentions come to light only through people-to-people communication and some news website like Prachatai.

Despite politics of fear, resistance is strong and fearless. On Friday 23, a day after the coup was announced, people gathered in front of Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre to light candles as a symbolic action. The troops were there too. Five people were detained and were released later. The peaceful protest continued at the weekend. Sunday was the most powerful gathering with more than 1,000 people participating at the Siam shopping center. Protests have also taken place in many other places in the country despite the limitation on freedom of assembly.

What about the coup supporters? What are behind their thoughts? Although not all, many of them support the coup as they believe it could help end the “Thaksin regime”. Thaksin had won admirers with populist policies, but he was also known for being corrupt. 

The coup supporters believe Thaksin and his regime had destroyed the three main pillars; nation, religion and monarchy, while also breaking the unity of the nation. The entry of military role in Thai politics is therefore seen as a good way to diminish a bad politician. However, the Thaksin regime is not just Thaksin and his co-workers, it also relates to people who have learnt to respect their right to vote. Once that rights awareness comes into play, it is hard to destroy.

In my opinion, if nothing comes in their way, the military junta would form a committee consisting of people from various sectors with positive or at least neutral perspective to find an exit for long-standing political conflict. Election and a new constitution will follow. But the regime will make sure that Thaksin and his relatives will not, or will be just a small part, in Thai politics.

However, one thing that is worth keeping an eye on is the politics of people. At present people movement is still not strong enough due to lack of organization. But the situation will change. It is same as an infant who learns to stand; one day he will be able to run with his own legs. Oppression by the junta will not work easily as it did in previous Thai political history. People politics is on the rise. It is a matter of time. If it does not function well this time, it could do so later. The conflict will not end easily.

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Thailand-based journalist

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