The situation in Thailand escalated from martial law to full-blown military coup around 5 p.m. on May 22. Despite new restrictions imposed by the army (especially those limiting media outlets), most Thais are sticking to their usual daily routines, and no major protests have been reported since the takeover began. But over the long run, a coup is not likely to be good for this country, as it poses another setback to democracy and economic growth. A very high-stakes negotiation is now under way between citizens and their government that will determine the future of Thailand.
I found out about the coup on my phone while in a taxi, and I immediately brought it up to the driver. “It’s OK,” he responded. “As long as everything keeps going on as usual, I don’t mind. We’re ok, you know — same-same,” he said, referring to a common Thai saying. I was surprised by his nonchalance, but from his perspective, a peaceful and stable society was more important than an infringement of his right to choose the leadership of his country. So far, other Thais whom I have asked have agreed, but this view is not universal.
The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) — commonly known as the “redshirts” — responded to the announcement differently. On Twitter, they posted, “NOW it is COUP – stand by for a retaliation from the UDD.” According to The Economist, it is likely that the coup will lead to more violence, and one friend of ours predicted civil war, but such extreme reactions are difficult to imagine amid the peace of daily life here. The potential reaction of the public is at the crux of the negotiation that this whole society is now engaged in.
Thais are no strangers to having curtailed rights, especially when it comes to speaking about their rulers. I learned from a reporter the other night about one freelance journalist who recently fled the country after being accused of making a critical statement about a high-level official. I have also heard of mothers turning in their own children for speaking ill of the king, which is a crime here. Many journalists opt to work from outside Thailand’s borders so that they can publish content critical of the elite.
Upon instating the coup, the military declared a 10 p.m. curfew countrywide and closed school for three days. They then shut down all television broadcasts, forbade meetings of more than five people, and warned journalists not to criticize the coup. Over the past 48 hours, the military has ordered the detention of more than 150 people, including key leaders, the former prime minister and academics. (The curfew is expected to be lifted, and schools to resume, on Monday, May 26.)
Despite all this, most Thais continued with their normal routines, but tensions are rising. Some Thais took to the streets to protest peacefully, shouting for the coup to end and for Army Chief Prayuth, who is acting as prime minister, to step down. In Kohn Kaen, nearly 300 miles north of Bangkok, the army stormed an apartment, arrested 23 redshirt activists and seized bombs, ammunition and other supplies.
The redshirts have reasons to be angry. In recent years, the urban elite have been successful in raising enough roadblocks to a democratically elected government that the military felt compelled to step in.
The trouble is this: Democracy is messy. The idea of democracy is that the majority chooses, and by default, some percentage of the society will be unsatisfied. In Thailand, the rural majority has consistently elected leaders aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. As I explained in my last post, the anti-government urban elite have held protests in Bangkok over the past six months, and disrupted the most recent attempt at elections in February. After standing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office on a charge of negligence, the military stepped in with martial law, and could have enforced a peaceful transition through a new election.
Now, the coup stands in the way of the right of the majority to elect their government and has further curtailed freedoms of speech that were already weak in Thailand. It may also threaten economic growth; the U.S. has already withdrawn much of its aid to Thailand. Investors are spooked.
Peace is paramount in Thailand. The country has a stronger record than perhaps any of its neighbors of peace and stability, in part thanks to the savvy monarchs who carefully avoided colonization from other powers over the past few centuries. As a result, Thailand is also better off than most of its neighbors — GDP is higher, and more Thais have access to sanitation and electricity than many neighboring countries.
From an outside perspective, it may be difficult to understand how a society could tolerate a military takeover of their democracy and a restriction of their freedoms without rebelling. Rising up would put Thais’ prized peace at risk.