Army unwilling to yield to democracy
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Army unwilling to yield to democracy

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures during a military parade in September 2014, about four months after he staged a coup in May. He is now the prime minister of an elected government. (Photo by Post Today)
Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures during a military parade in September 2014, about four months after he staged a coup in May. He is now the prime minister of an elected government. (Photo by Post Today)

For the country like Thailand where the military staged two putsches within the past 13 years, a coup d'état should no longer be necessary.

But the 2006 coup maker, former army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, still told Nikkei in an exclusive interview published in the Nikkei Asian Review on July 17 that it is still necessary for Thailand's "immature democracy". Why does he believe that? Is there something unique about the coups here?

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition, a coup is "the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group". For the coups in Thailand, the key here is the "overthrow of an existing government by a small group". It could be a sudden act or the result of a long course of plotting.

Additionally, Thai coups are unique. They may be bloodless but they still harbour "violence" in other forms such as suppression of freedom of expression and temporary detention of coup critics. More interestingly, they were cited as the means to prevent "violence" and mend political conflicts.

But no matter what, it is about a small group of people, such as generals and oligarchs, who want to be in power by overthrowing an elected government, via any means necessary.

"I did what I had to do as a soldier," Gen Sonthi, a former Thai army chief who led the 2006 overthrow of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, told Khaosod newspaper in 2016. In his opinion, Thailand then was on the verge of collapse because anti-Thaksin protesters (the yellow shirts) were taking to the streets at the same time as pro-Thaksin street demonstrators (the red shirts). Gen Sonthi said that he learned that Thaksin planned to crack down on the yellow shirts so he decided to step in just to avert the crisis.

"There would have been use of force on September 20th [2006] against the anti-government crowds. There would be violence, and my job was to take care of the internal security of the nation," he told the Thai newspaper.

To his credit, he did step down from a post in an interim government two weeks after the coup before handing power to an unelected prime minister and another former army chief, Gen Surayud Chulanont. Gen Sonthi then remained as head of the junta.

The 2006 coup may have succeeded in preventing the potential "violent crackdown", even if it was just a pretext invented by Gen Sonthi. However, it brought about violence and deepened the political turmoil in following years.

After Gen Surayud, who served as the 24th prime minister from 2006 to 2008, there was real bloodshed when a government led by then Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered a crackdown on red-shirt protesters in 2010 which led to more than 90 being killed.

This time the military did not stage a coup to prevent or stop the violence. In my opinion, this could have been because it was the red shirts who were facing violence, not the yellow shirts. The yellow shirts later transformed into pro-coup supporters known as the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) whose street protests gave a pretext for the May 2014 putsch. The PDRC was led by none other than Suthep Thaugsuban, Mr Abhisit's former right-hand man. They were all part of the same group.

Thaksin, who still wielded a lot of political power after the 2006 coup, did not go anywhere far as he still managed to install his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister after a landslide election victory in 2011. That proxy government did not last long as she was later toppled by the 2014 coup and this time it was another army chief, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has now transformed himself into a full bird politician.

Last week, Prachachat Party leader Wan Muhammad Nor Matha accused Gen Prayut of spending three years plotting the coup. But the latter has denied the claim.

Unlike Gen Sonthi, Gen Prayut did not give up his illegitimate power but decided to stay on for another five years by drafting a new constitution, enacting orders of the junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and using sweeping powers granted to himself under Section 44 of the interim charter to serve his political goals. His regime also suppressed political opponents, dissidents and journalists.

The 2017 constitution is deeply undemocratic but it still managed to be approved by 61% of voters in the 2016 referendum with a 59% turnout, thanks to the NCPO's propaganda and suppression of vote-no campaigns.

While both coups failed to prevent violence and reconcile political conflicts, they succeeded in paving the way for many generals to rise to power and intervene in civilian affairs. In addition to those holding the prime minister and deputy prime minister posts, other junta members were appointed "lawmakers" in the now-defunct, NCPO-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA), which has passed laws for this country. Many of them were later appointed members of the current Senate. They are also backed up by a pro-junta political party, Palang Pracharath, whose members are mostly pro-coup and anti-Thaksin supporters.

For many Thais, a coup should never be necessary. But it is necessary for a small group of people who still want to be in power. Gen Sonthi may claim that Thailand's democracy is "immature". For me, there is no real democracy here at the moment and the so-called "Thai-style democracy" coined by Gen Prayut who currently leads an "elected government" is simply a fake one.

"Thailand has many poor people," Gen Sonthi told Nikkei. "And rich people often come in and take advantage of the poor in a democratic system. Politicians, who spend a lot of money on election manoeuvring, try to take back money while they are in power."

Gen Sonthi also added that this failing democracy in Thailand has led to cronyism and nepotism. But he still somehow turned a blind eye when Gen Prayut and his right-hand man, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, installed his brothers and friends as members of the NLA and Senate. Why? This is because they all belong in the same small group of people who want to be in power and who deemed "a coup is necessary".

Gen Sonthi then went on in the interview to say that cronyism and nepotism have led to administrative posts being filled with the most unqualified people. Another result, he said, is that "it causes inefficiency and even corruption". Again, my question is: How did Gen Sonthi not see what Gen Prayut has done by filling the ministerial positions in his government with people criticised as unqualified?

Will we see another coup? With Gen Sonthi still saying that it is necessary, and army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong not ruling it out either, along with the fact that nothing close to a reconciliation of political conflicts has been accomplished, there is still a good chance.

The lack of reconciliation also shows that coups did not solve the deeply rooted political turmoil. However, the prospect of being overthrown by the military is unlikely to happen to Gen Prayut's government because he is a friend of the small group of people who currently hold the power in the military.

Still, they are saying another coup may still be "necessary" and can "fix" political problems when in reality, coups only serve as a political tool for generals and oligarchs. For now, they are saving it for later.

Erich Parpart is a senior reporter of the Bangkok Post.

Erich Parpart

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

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