Join Date: May 2003
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The coup was seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister, and pleaded with the military for months to step in.
As soldiers spread out throughout Bangkok on Thursday, the generals issued a series of announcements, declaring most of the Constitution “terminated,” banning gatherings of more than five people, imposing a curfew and shutting schools.
The coup was at least the 12th military takeover since Thailand abandoned the absolute monarchy in 1932. But unlike many previous coups, which involved infighting among generals, Thursday’s military takeover had as a subtext the political awakening among rural Thais who have loyally supported Mr. Thaksin and benefited from patronage and policies such as universal health care and microloans.
Critics of Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who lives in self-imposed exile abroad, say he also took corruption to a new level.
With one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, Thailand has long been attractive to foreign investors and tourists drawn by its reputation as “the land of smiles.” But in recent months, it has made headlines for the many attempts by antigovernment protesters to suspend democracy, a jarring contrast with its open, cosmopolitan image.
The military and Bangkok establishment now face the question of either retaining the power gained from the coup or returning the country to democracy — with the likelihood that Mr. Thaksin and his proven political machine would again return to power in elections. The coup in 2006 unseated Mr. Thaksin, but his backers came back to win at the polls, leading to his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, becoming prime minister in 2011.
Although the leader of the antigovernment movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, was detained Thursday, his supporters praised the coup. “This is a victory day for the people,” Samdin Lertbutr, an antigovernment protest leader, said in an interview. “The military has done their job. And we have done our job.”
The Thai military had initially pledged that Thursday would be a day of seeking political compromise, two days after declaring martial law in what it said was an attempt to force a political resolution. The army hosted rival political leaders, including Mr. Suthep, for what was billed as a second round of talks. But after several hours, soldiers detained the participants, including cabinet ministers.
The leader of the army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, then announced the coup on national television, saying he would “reform the political structure, the economy and the society.”
Television stations were ordered to replace their regular programming with messages from the military and patriotic songs. The military also issued a summons for 41 political figures tied to Mr. Thaksin, including Ms. Yingluck, who was removed as prime minister by a court this month and replaced by a deputy.
The coup drew immediate rebukes from abroad. Secretary of State John Kerry urged that civilian government be restored immediately.
“There is no justification for this military coup,” he said in a statement. “While we value our long friendship with the Thai people, this act will have negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.”
A spokesman at the Defense Department said the Pentagon was reviewing military cooperation, including planned joint exercises set to start Monday.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also appealed for a “prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule.” And like Mr. Kerry, Britain’s foreign secretary and the office of the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, were among those calling for new elections.
Six months of debilitating protests in Thailand have centered on whether to hold elections to end the political unrest. Protesters have occupied government buildings, forcing even the prime minister to work elsewhere, and courts and independent government agencies have issued a series of rulings favorable to the protesters, including prohibiting the government from dispersing demonstrators. Some of those rulings have been derided by legal scholars.
The antigovernment forces resent Mr. Thaksin not only for his concentration of power but also for intimidation of the news media during his time in office and what they call the mixing of his personal business with affairs of state. But many of them have also become skeptical of the notion of one person, one vote, which they say hands too much power to uneducated provincial voters who support Mr. Thaksin.
The opposition proposes a return to democracy, but only after unspecified changes.
In December, the governing party dissolved the House of Representatives in an attempt to defuse the crisis and set an election for February. But the opposition Democrat Party, which has not won a national election in two decades, refused to take part. The Constitutional Court later ruled that the election was unconstitutional, one of several rulings against the government by a court perceived by government supporters to be highly political.
The military said Thursday that it would be fair to both sides in the continuing political dispute. But it allowed antigovernment demonstrators to remain in their protest site overnight, even as soldiers in black masks dispersed crowds loyal to Mr. Thaksin and the deposed government.
After deposing Mr. Thaksin in 2006, the generals put in place an administration that was widely seen as a failure.
“The lesson they learned the last time was that the medicine they prescribed after the coup was not strong enough,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a former student activist in Thailand who is now a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin. “There’s a high possibility of very drastic measures and suppression this time.”
At the time, the Constitution was rewritten to strengthen the role of judges, and the popular representation in the Senate was diluted.
The initial trigger for the latest political crisis were the attempts by Ms. Yingluck’s party to institute an amnesty program that could have allowed Mr. Thaksin to return from exile.
Although Thailand has been burdened with tumultuous politics for decades, it has also been, by many measures, an economic success story and a well-functioning society, consistently outperforming almost all of its neighbors. Close to 100 percent of the population has running water and electricity. The unemployment rate is only around 1 percent. And American and Japanese automotive factories together export more than a million cars a year from the country.
Despite those strengths, the economy contracted in the first quarter amid the unrest.
In Thailand’s turbulent political history, the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has on at least one occasion helped resolve political disputes. But he is 86 years old and ailing.
There have been so many coups in Thailand’s history that scholars have not arrived at a definitive number.
Nicholas Farrelly, a specialist on Southeast Asia at Australian National University, posted a message this week on a website dedicated to studies on Thailand and its neighboring countries. Mr. Farrelly tallied 11 “successful” coups and nine “unsuccessful” ones. But he wrote that he also found “obscure references to aborted military interventions.”
“Please share your knowledge to help us count Thailand’s military coups once-and-for-all,” he wrote.