It's best not to     forget lessons of 1991 coup

It's best not to     forget lessons of 1991 coup

Gen Suchinda Krapayoon and his 1991 junta mates thought they were popular, and had the polls to prove it. But the people turned against them violently when they broke their promises to return to the barracks, and tried to hold onto power indefinitely. (File photo)
Gen Suchinda Krapayoon and his 1991 junta mates thought they were popular, and had the polls to prove it. But the people turned against them violently when they broke their promises to return to the barracks, and tried to hold onto power indefinitely. (File photo)

Feb 23, the day the military top brass toppled the government of Chatichai Choonhavan in a bloodless coup in 1991 (with a political bloodbath, known as the Black May uprising the following year) passed by almost without notice.

Led by strongman Sunthorn Kongsompong and his brothers in arms, the National Peace Keeping Council faced only a little resistance, and not openly, when they seized power, citing corruption by bad politicians as the main reason. In a way, they managed to convince the public the political situation required military intervention and what they did was for the country. To prove this had nothing to with them, the NPKC carefully formed a civilian government, led by Anand Panyarachun.

Things went relatively well for the coup makers. There were no challenges such as public readings of 1984, or the three-finger salute as a protest gesture, at least until they failed to keep their word that they would stay out of politics. But after an election in early 1992, Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon became the 19th prime minister. That became an expensive lesson for him and the top brass.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

The 1991 junta's failure stemmed from its inability to fathom the public mood and an incorrect belief in its authority. Misuse of power through state mechanisms fuelled people's anger and the 1992 May uprising became unavoidable.

The upheaval gave birth to a new term, mob mue thue (meaning mobile telephone-holding protesters) when protesters, mostly young, vigorous middle class used their gadgets to share and keep abreast of the situation; while officials desperately depended on rustic state mechanisms to control the media.

When it was over, Gen Suchinda left politics for good and the military was at rock bottom, prompting a need for reform. We, even those in uniform, came to believe that coups were a thing of the past as democracy gained strength with the rise of grassroots movements. Unfortunately, we were all wrong.

The country had not just one but two coups, in 2006 and 2014. It was the widening political divide that gave the military an excuse to step in. The way it brought back calmness, albeit with a high price -- freedom of expression curbs and infringements on basic rights.

After almost three years in power, it's apparent that the current military can do little, if anything, about the political divide. It's something that the military government cannot solve through the use of the draconian law, Section 44 of the interim charter. In fact, it must realise that the use -- and misuse of -- this law will do more harm than good.

Like the NPKC coup makers, Gen Prayut has repeated that he has no interest in staying on in politics. And I hope he remembers what he said when the time comes. Besides, many are curious about Gen Prayut's role with regard to the government's 20-year reform process in accordance with the political roadmap.

While the prime minister's decisive leadership and straightforwardness may appeal to many Thais in general, and his clean image has ensured high ratings (though many polls were conducted by agencies with close affiliations to the powers-that-be), it's the people around him who keep getting entangled in scandals, if not trouble. His younger brother, Gen Preecha, is one of them. While his qualifications as a member of the National Legislative Assembly are not very convincing, his frequent absences from the assembly's meetings just add to the many scandals that have given the prime minister headaches.

On top of that, the government must know that the lack of a checks-and-balances mechanism places it at risk of making a wrong decision or decisions. Many of its decisions are questionable, if not objectionable. For instance, the purchase of Chinese-made submarines, the Krabi coal-fired power plant, the Mekong rapids blasting plan, the new economic development zones that take away grassroots' natural resources, and the single gateway, et cetera.

By nature, the junta has limitations if not a lack of ability to deal with modern 21st-century issues. They are trained as a military, whose job is to defend, not to run the country.

A friend who remembers this very coup day raised an interesting question on Facebook: What did we learn from the 1991 coup? I think many people have learned. That may explain why the government has seen a drop in its popularity. Just a little over five out of 10 by the Bangkok Poll. But for the junta, I am not sure if they have learned anything. Maybe it's time they took a close, serious look at political history and avoid repeating the mistakes of the coup-makers of the past.

The stakes are simply too high.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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