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(October 19, 2018) Debunking two myths of the 2014 coup - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

As momentum towards the next general election gathers pace, the two main myths that underpinned Thailand's most recent military coup in May 2014 deserve debunking. Both are associated with the military's role in politics. Seeing through these two perpetuated myths leaves us with the reality that all players in Thai politics are in pursuit of power and vested interests. All pretence to the contrary is sheer falsehood, hypocrisy and political manipulation.




The first myth emanates from what might be viewed as the Thai military's self-proclaimed benevolent brokerage of peace and stability. The coup-making generals, led by current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, have used this pretext of necessary and benign intervention as their default claim to power.

Their narrative is that the protracted street protests in Bangkok after the amnesty bill of the Yingluck Shinawatra government was passed in the Lower House at the end of October 2013 brought about an intractable political situation, characterised by instability, mayhem and impotent governance. As street protests went on in central Bangkok for more than six months, led by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), Thailand became effectively paralysed. After waiting patiently for civilian leaders under the PDRC and the Yingluck government to sort out their political differences, the military ultimately had no choice but to step in to restore order and stability and enable Thailand to move forward again. This is the Thai junta's go-to story for seizing power, and Gen Prayut has repeated it many times.

Buried in this narrative is the military's complicity and role in overt and implicit support of the PDRC during the Bangkok protests from late October 2013 until the putsch on May 22. When the military intervened, it was already a party to the Thai political conflict, not the impartial observer and broker as claimed. At the height of the protests, for example, the military installed some 176 bunkers around protest sites for protection, as anti-PDRC violence was on the rise. These bunkers were maintained even after the Yingluck government lifted the emergency decree for Bangkok. At no point did the military, led by Gen Prayut as army commander in chief at the time, express outright support for the civilian government that came to office via the ballot box.

This narrative of the military as an honest broker having to step in from time to time to halt and repair the political mess of civilian leaders is deeply embedded. Earlier this week, for example, newly appointed army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong was asked point-blank by journalists whether another coup could be in the offing. His unsurprising answer was that military coups cannot be ruled out as long as politicians make a mess of a given political situation. While Thai politicians are traditionally shoddy with myriad shortcomings, the notion that the military is the "knight saviour" of Thai politics is misplaced, misguided and potentially dangerous.

After more than four years of military government, the junta's vested interests and partiality are self-evident. It has set up its own Palang Pracharath political party to retain power for the long haul after the next poll. The military government's previously discreet alliance with the PDRC is now out in the open, as the protest movement has formed the Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) Party. Led by PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who repeatedly vowed in 2013-14 to quit politics after succeeding in paving the way for the putsch, the ACT has thrown in its lot with the government and supports Gen Prayut as post-election prime minister. Likewise, Gen Prayut has appointed Mr Suthep's former PDRC lieutenants to government jobs, including as deputy secretary-general to the prime minister and deputy governor of Bangkok.

The big puzzle about this myth of martial benevolence is how the Thai public has more or less gone along with it. A three-pronged explanation appears relevant.

When the coup took place, most Thais, especially those in Bangkok, had grown tired and frustrated with the street protests as much as with the Yingluck government's inability to get itself out of trouble. As Thailand became essentially ungovernable, the return of order and stability was welcomed even at the cost of a putsch.

Moreover, the Yingluck government's blanket amnesty bill that could have exonerated the wrongdoings of her self-exiled and previously overthrown brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, also was a culprit. Having won the people's trust with an overall majority in the July 2011 poll, all the Yingluck government could think of half-way into its term was to pave the way for Thaksin's return.

The coup was partly overlooked because the once-in-a-lifetime royal succession loomed. Just about all Thais kind of knew it without having to say it. At that time, in the Thai scheme of things harking back over a 70-year reign that overcame the Cold War and enabled economic development, the military was most suited to carry out such a profound transition. If news headlines since the coup are perused, it is likely that public perceptions and criticisms of the junta picked up in earnest only after the Ninth Reign ended in October 2016.

To be sure, the military is not an honest broker in Thai politics. It pursues corporate interests, such as unaccountable weapons procurement and allocation of public resources for its own gain. Sometimes it leaves and hands back power to civilian politicians on time as pledged, such as the September 2006 coup that was followed by the December 2007 election. But other times, it stays on through manipulation with intent to prolong power, as has the incumbent government.

The second myth requires little elaboration. As is well known, politicians in Thailand over the decades have engaged in what is called "money politics" centred on patronage networks, whereby an elected office can be quantified into investible sums through canvassers and middlemen based on vote-buying at the household level. When elected, these politicians then find their way to government largesse for corruption and graft to recoup their investments with plenty of windfalls.

Yet its flipside, namely the military-peddled binary notion that generals in Thailand are clean compared to politicians, is an utter falsehood. Over the past several years, ruling generals have had their fair share of allegations of graft and abuse of power. They have got away with them so far owing to coercion and intimidation, backed by guns and draconian laws. But let's not pretend that politicians are all dirty and generals all clean.

Deflating these two myths of the military's benevolent intervention and supposed integrity means that all players in Thai politics struggle for power to safeguard and expand their interests. What should be the order of the day, in this context, is a more level playing field for all parties involved, not a stacked deck, rigged rules and partial referees that Thailand has ended up with under its military government.