Thai crisis: a military coup is not a solution — The year was 2006. Anti-government protests had been going on for about a year. Many people, at least in Bangkok, were sick of Thaksin Shinawatra and what he represented. Corruption at an appalling level, even for this country. Expats who lived here were even more appalled by his human rights violations – something many Thais, oddly enough, rarely mentioned (and still don’t).
Human Rights Watch called him “a human rights violator of the worst kind”, two of the most obvious examples being his 2003 “war on drugs”, in which the international community and human rights groups widely accused him of extrajudicial killings in many of the 2,275 deaths in the streets, and the Tak Bai incident, in which Muslim demonstrators were shacked and forced to lie on top of one another in army trucks for hours, resulting in some 84 deaths.
Thaksin’s premiership was also criticized for its authoritarianism, for acting non-diplomatically, and for attempting to muzzle the press, among other things. The man’s sheer arrogance turned many off.
However, his landslide victories in the 2001 and 2005 elections were the biggest in Thai history. In 2001 his new Thai Rak Thai Party won 248 House seats, more than any other in Thai history, just three seats short of an absolute majority. The 2005 landslide was even bigger, when he did gain an absolute majority.
Pressured by the growing anti-government protests, Thaksin dissolved Parliament in February 2006 and called a snap election for April. The Thaksin-supported parties have always had this “appeal to democracy” on their side – their opponents would say it’s just slick manipulation of the rural masses through bribes, vote-buying, and populist policies. As an added bonus, it looks really good to those outside Thailand who don’t understand how the system here works. It looks like “real democracy” from a distance, and as they say in Thailand – image is everything.
The widely boycotted snap election in April 2006 was invalidated by the courts in May, and new elections called for October. Meanwhile, the anti-Thaksin street protests continued.
But then, something totally unexpected happened, because many observers thought Thailand had gotten “past that”. On the evening of September 19, 2006 a military coup was staged that overthrew Thaksin while he was out of the country.
I was shocked when I heard the news in the morning. Though I was no fan of military coups, indeed it seemed like something out of the Dark Ages, I wasn’t sorry to see Thaksin go. The man had seemed invincible for years, and I had been sympathetic towards the yellow-shirted anti-Thaksin protests, which had been almost completely peaceful and law-abiding up to that point.
But no one who was glad to see Thaksin gone at the time could have possibly foreseen the unintended consequences of that coup. When the courts dissolved his Thai Rak Thai Party a few months later for electoral fraud, I remember reading an article in the newspaper that read like an obituary. I actually felt sorry for the man. The article claimed that the party had always bought its support, that it never was about a genuine belief in any ideology or anything else. The party MPs never had anything in common other than a desire to whore themselves out to Thaksin’s money. Sad, or so it seemed.
And then, the completely unexpected consequences of the military coup slowly became apparent. First of all, the “death” of Thai Rak Thai, which seemed like a slam dunk for Thaksin opponents, the end of his political career, and the end of this corrupt manipulation of the rural masses, was premature – to say the least.
Thaksin and his supporters got around this problem in an astonishingly simple way. They just formed a brand new party and proceeded to win the next election after the coup. Though the name had changed, now called the People’s Power Party, everyone knew what it really was – the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai.
So 15 months after the coup, we had a new Thaksin-supported government. And though he was living in self-imposed exile, the suspicions were widespread that he really controlled the ruling party.
Were we really back to square one? But even more unbelievable events were about to unfold.
It took just a few months before the yellow-shirts were back on the streets protesting against the “Thaksin-controlled” government. When Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was removed from office in Sept 2008 over the controversial issue of hosting and receiving payments for two TV cooking shows while in office, the ruling party nominated Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, as prime minister.
After the yellow-shirts, called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), seized Bangkok’s main airport in late Nov 2008, the crisis was not resolved until the Constitution Court ruled to dissolve the ruling People’s Power Party for electoral fraud.
This event is still called a “judicial coup” by Thaksin supporters. Even worse for them, in less than two weeks the opposition Democrat Party managed to gain enough support in parliament to form the new government, with Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister. Thaksin himself and some of his supporters would accuse Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda and army chief Anupong Paochinda of not only conspiring in the 2006 coup, but also in the 2008 “judicial coup” that put the Democrat-led government in power.
Thaksin supporters were enraged by these perceived injustices, and violent protests against the “unelected” government began in April 2009. The most astonishing thing to me occurred when the army was finally called out to put an end to the rampaging of Thaksin supporters, who were now called the red-shirts or United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), on the streets of Bangkok.
One would think that the appearance of tanks on the streets would have an effect on protesters, but the red-shirts showed no fear of tanks or guns. They were actually jumping on top of army tanks and taking them over. I looked on in disbelief.
One must understand that the situation in Bangkok, with red-shirts running amok all over the city, was scary. Indeed, many Bangkokians were demanding that the government call out the army to put an end to the chaos and protect the public.
I never imagined that even the army on the streets would be unable to bring the red-shirts under control. Finally, they did though, once they showed the red-shirts they were serious.
But the following year it got even worse. The red-shirts took over the upscale Ratchaprasong area, the very heart of Bangkok, essentially setting up a “state within a state” with its own borders, police, leaders, and apparent armed forces (though hidden from view). Repeatedly, the red-shirts would boldly confront police or soldiers, grabbing guns right out of their hands and seizing buildings for various reasons. The sheer audacity of the red-shirts was something to behold.
One night in April, the army tried to disperse the protesters at Democracy Monument, but shadowy figures (the infamous “men in black”) attacked the soldiers with grenades and other weapons of war, killing several. These were the first deaths in the 2010 protests. The army retreated that night, and the red-shirts were still in the area in the morning, with abandoned army vehicles as trophies of their victory.
The much-feared military crackdown on the main red-shirt camp at Ratchaprasong finally occurred in May. Seh Daeng, the alleged leader of the red-shirt’s militia-allied “men in black”, was suddenly shot in the head during an interview in broad daylight, and that was the spark that set things off. What took place over the next six days was a virtual war in the heart of Bangkok. The fighting took place just outside the borders of the red camp, until Wednesday morning when tanks appeared on the streets.
The army stormed the red camp. Surprisingly, the red-shirts did not put up the kind of fight they had at Democracy Monument – likely because they knew by now the soldiers would use live ammunition if they did. As soldiers swiftly made their way toward the main stage, the red leaders called off the protest, telling supporters to go home. As they dispersed, buildings were set on fire all over Bangkok, allegedly by furious reds. In the two months of protests, some 90 people were killed, and many more injured.
But yet after all was said and done, the red-shirt party won the next election in July of 2011. That’s 5-0 since 2001. And this time it was Thaksin’s sister Yingluck who became prime minister.
Things remained calm until a couple months ago, when protests against the government’s blanket amnesty bill grew into a movement to oust the Yingluck government. It looks like a stalemate, and rumors of a military coup have circulated wildly in recent days.
The Bangkok Post ran an editorial today titled “A coup is not the solution“, in which it said the military is well aware of the consequences if it stages another coup. The red-shirts would mobilise and violence is very likely. Then, when the next elections are held, the Thaksin party would likely return to power.
As we’ve already discovered, a military coup would only favour and legitimise Thaksin. The 2006 coup, intended to get rid of Thaksin and what he represented, actually had the opposite effect. It has led to the ongoing political chaos ever since.
The Bangkok Post editorial warned that the consequences of another coup “would be worse than the vicious cycle we have experienced in the past. This time a coup would be the spark sending the country into turmoil.”