In early May of this year the Thai Constitutional Court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for a single transfer of office that allowed Thaksin Shinawatra’s former brother in law to become the nation’s top cop. Since the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin from office, Yingluck’s dismissal was the third time courts had removed from office pro-Thaksin prime ministers. Two weeks later the self-proclaimed National Council for Peace and Order seized power, claiming that rival political camps were on the brink of political violence and it was time to restore national happiness.
Then followed the “Big Shift” as the junta purged officials and moved their people into place. From those outraged at Thaksin and Yingluck’s political nepotism no sound was heard against the military’s self-regarding and non-transparent appointments.
The junta cemented its power by a series of extra-ordinary decrees including those enabling the forcible detention (for the purposes of attitude adjustment) of hundreds of politicians, activists, academics and potential dissidents. And from those who had taken to the streets citing the liberal rights of the minority (the protestors) in the face of the tyranny of the majority (the Yingluck government) no opposition was raised against arbitrary detention.
The silence is symptomatic of authoritarian liberals’ belief that Thailand is now in abnormal times and requires drastic measures. And so it still remains, as each day brings new abnormalities under coup law and the country drifts towards an unimaginable future.
Inevitably, whispers of physical human rights abuse leaked from some detainees, but none so spectacularly as that of red shirt activist Kritsuda Khunasem, who endured three weeks of detention and emerged “more happy than I can say”, only to seek refuge in Europe with claims of torture. More of such reports can be expected, for a coup licenses such abuse. Until the rule of law is established, the onus should be on the alleged guilty party in such cases to prove that it did not engage in torture, since that party acts without due process and transparency.
More allegations of coercion, harm and torture are likely to emerge, despite the conditional release of some detainees with statements that they were well-treated and would work with the military for reconciliation. Images in the Thai press of forced meetings between yellow and red-shirt activists underline the grim-faced submission to the coup. That the military believed its Return Happiness and reconciliation campaigns would work is not farcical, it is terrifying. We cannot know what else the military dictatorship believes it can get away with, or what it will do to stay in power.
Indeed, what are we to make of the Thai coup makers’ dispiriting use of martial law and censorship, and its growing political ambition evidenced by appointing an effective military majority to the just established National Legislative Assembly? This is a level of khaki ambition unseen since the Cold War 1970s. And it finds diplomatic support in Chinese and Burmese quarters. On display is a gritted-tooth spit in the face of history-as-freedom as the junta tries to convince itself of its legitimacy, as much as others, by double speak – hence the arrest of those at downtown Paragon Mall caught reading Orwell’s 1984. This is not so much a case of an emperor with no clothes as commoners with mirrors.
While conspiracy theorists view the military return to power as a plot, the decision to assume sovereign power by might, lies not in some original sin of the will to power, but in political circumstances surrounding the failure of competing political leaderships from 2005 onwards to settle the terms of their elite contest amidst emergent mass movements. When given a conditional constitutional terrain on which to contest their respective ideologies they each, at different times, failed to submit to a general constitutional law, providing the emotional, political or legal fuel to sustain a deadlocked politics.
For the latest crisis, responsibility at its gravest lies with the reactionary anti-Thaksin People’s Democratic Reform Committee that led months’ long protests before the coup, and the opposition Democrat Party from which the committee was spawned. From late 2013, Thailand’s political opposition transformed itself into an outfit set on vandalizing Thailand’s relatively open electoral system by unashamedly courting partisan legal agencies and paving the way for military intervention. As egregious as Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party may have been to its opponents, smart oppositional strategy may have eroded the substantial electoral power that has delivered Thaksin-sponsored parties to power in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011.
Instead, the opposition effectively cheered for a military coup knowing that it would not be a “soft coup” like 2006. It now supinely allows the military to stamp its full authority on post-coup institutions, underlining the desperation of those wanting to eliminate the “Thaksin regime”, of which the Yingluck government was considered a proxy. That regime was considered by royalist liberals and conservatives a threat to monarchy, democracy, clean government and liberty. The only thing now supposedly secured by the coup is the monarchy. Democracy and liberty are being redefined along conservative guardianship lines, echoing military dogma from the 1960s. As for clean government, elements in the military are just as corrupt as some politicians evidenced by a number of procurement scandals.
Some in the military believe in the justice of redesigning democracy, and as far as they can see most Thai citizens are smiling in agreement, as required by coup-law. They will do well to remember the events of 1973 and 1992 when hundreds of thousands of democracy protestors forced dictators to exit in shame. Hubris always has an expiry date.
Michael Connors teaches politics at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus.
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons