Letter from Thailand — From the June 2015 issue

A Polite Coup

Why one of Asia’s most open societies keeps turning to military rule

As military coups go, Thailand’s putsch on May 22, 2014, was rather polite — no mass imprisonments, no stadiums full of students tortured and shot. The toppled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was detained for only three days. Before the coup, there had been months of street clashes between loyalist “red shirts” and opposition “yellow shirts,” and now General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta promised to “restore happiness to the people.”

There have since been some public protests against martial law. Students were arrested in Bangkok for flashing a three-finger salute copied from The Hunger Games, the novel and attendant movie about a rebellion against a fictional dictatorship. Modest three-finger student demonstrations have also taken place in Khon Kaen, a city in the rural northeast that is considered the main red-shirt stronghold. The salute is now banned in Thailand, as is public reading of George Orwell’s 1984. But so far, opposition to the junta has not found a popular voice — no great demonstrations, no acts of violence.

It is easy, under such relatively tranquil conditions, not to take Thailand and its coups entirely seriously. Military takeovers occur with some regularity there. Eight years before Yingluck Shinawatra was deposed, her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra — an ex-policeman who made a fortune in the cell phone business before being elected prime minister in 2001 — was similarly removed from office. There have been more than twenty coups or attempted coups in the past century. The most famous, which in 1932 forced the absolute monarchy of Thailand (then known as Siam) to accept a constitution, is commemorated by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument — something of a misnomer, since the memorial was commissioned in 1939 by Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the closest thing Thailand has had to a fascist dictator.

Soldiers stand near posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a demonstration against the recent military coup, at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, May 26, 2014 © Adam Ferguson/New York Times/Redux

Soldiers stand near posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a demonstration against the recent military coup, at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, May 26, 2014 © Adam Ferguson/New York Times/Redux

Many demonstrations have been held at this monument, often with fatal consequences. Protesters against the country’s military regimes were massacred in 1973, 1976, and 1992. Coups are usually bloodless in Thailand, but the protests that follow are not. That is one reason a putsch should be taken seriously, however common they have become. There is an edge of fear in Thai life now, though it is perhaps less noticeable in Bangkok, where the yellow shirts — backed by the army, the social elite, and the monarchy — have always dominated, than in the poorer and largely rural north and northeast.

In those areas, which were neglected by rulers in the past, people now feel they have been twice robbed of their legitimate government. Whatever his many faults, Thaksin listened to voters in rural Thailand and used his personal wealth and charisma to give them things they needed: nearly free health care, agricultural subsidies, and low-interest loans for farms and small businesses. Thaksin could hardly be classified as nouveau riche — his great-grandfather, a Chinese immigrant, amassed a fortune in business — but his family’s power base in Chiang Mai was far from Bangkok. After a career in the police, he became nationally prominent as a successful telecommunications entrepreneur who used his contacts in the army and the police to his advantage. Yet he never lost his provincial appeal; he knew how to talk to rural people. Under Thaksin and Yingluck, a new class of farmers and businessmen began to feel empowered. These days it looks to them as though the old Bangkok elite has struck back.

Members and supporters of the old red-shirt regime are now regularly hauled into army camps, where they are ordered to desist from political activity and from communication with reporters. Their families are threatened with repercussions if they disobey. Radio programs sympathetic to the red shirts have been taken off the air. Social-media messages are carefully scrutinized for signs of dissent. Each day schoolchildren are made to recite General Prayuth’s “twelve core values,” which stress obedience to the government and the monarch. Newspapers and television broadcasters are told to avoid anything that might “confuse the minds of the people,” a warning that is sufficiently vague to allow punishment at the junta’s whim.

Perhaps the most feared tool at the military rulers’ disposal is Section 112 of the criminal code: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” This, too, can be interpreted widely, and is often used to crush political opponents. Lèse-majesté can even apply to the long dead. Last October, a prominent intellectual named Sulak Sivaraksa was accused of defamation for casting doubt on a sixteenth-century Siamese royal battle against the Burmese king. He had supposedly insulted King Naresuan, who died in 1605.

There are more lèse-majesté cases pending now than ever before. In the six months after last year’s coup, eighteen people were charged with the crime, including two activists involved in a production of The Wolf Bride, a play about a fictional monarch. The charges are partly opportunistic, the sign of a nervous regime unsure of its legitimacy. But they also reflect high anxiety about royal succession. The much-admired King Bhumibol, whose authority has been invoked to defuse many political crises over his sixty-eight-year reign, is too ill to appear in public anymore, as is his wife, Queen Sirikit. The king allegedly gave his blessing to the junta, but little is known about his actual state of mind. His likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a capricious womanizer whose extravagant birthday celebration for his miniature poodle Foo Foo went viral on YouTube, is deeply unpopular. So the future authority of the royal institution is at stake. Contrary to the trend of previous coups, the current regime is not promising a quick return to civilian rule; one reason may be a wish to maintain control during a tricky succession, which could come rather soon.

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is a professor at Bard College. His most recent book is Theater of Cruelty (New York Review Books).

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October 2019