Will this crisis lead to another coup?

Will this crisis lead to another coup?

As society is trapped in political warfare, rumours of an impending coup are escalating, especially after the fatal clashes between police and anti-government protesters at the Thai-Japanese Stadium on Dec 26.

Political chaos inevitably lies ahead. The anti-government protesters have vowed to disrupt the Feb 2 election, with People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowing a "shutdown" of Bangkok to press for caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's resignation. Poll registration has already been blocked by protesters in some southern provinces.

All eyes are now on army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, who last week, for the first time, implied the possibility of a coup as a way out of the political deadlock.

The statement was in stark contrast to his previous position that a coup would be obsolete and not possible in the modern world.

"The military does not shut or open the door to a coup, but a decision depends on the situation," Gen Prayuth said during a press conference last Friday which was attended by senior military officers.

"It's like I am leading the army to a junction where there is traffic coming from both the left and right. I may have to go straight by, turning the traffic lights red on both sides, forcing them to stop and calm down, so we can pass this difficult situation."

After two months of political stalemate, some have started thinking that a coup is the only way to lead the country out of the crisis.

In times of trouble, people still pin their hopes on the military, calling for men in uniform to intervene.

However, the army chief has tried to maintain impartiality. Gen Prayuth, together with other senior military officers, brokered talks between the prime minister and Mr Suthep on Dec 1, though they did not result in any significant outcome. The army has also refrained from cracking down on the protesters _ another lesson learned from the 2010 red-shirt protests in which several officers faced charges for the casualties that resulted from use of force.

Gen Prayuth even rejected a request from Mr Suthep for the two to sit down at a private meeting. Instead, he held a public forum for the PDRC and state officers on Dec 14.

But two former army leaders _ former defence minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and former army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda _ as members of the "Tiger of the East" group who are close to Gen Prayuth, have significantly stirred the coup rumours.

The anti-government protest leaders, without saying it out loud, have also been strongly hinting the army should take action. They have made suggestive statements like, "The army must side with the people."

Sharing the sentiment of the protesters are several retired military officers, who called for Gen Prayuth to ask the prime minister to step down. But the army chief has resisted that pressure.

During last Friday's interview, Gen Prayuth told of his frustration with unfair accusations, especially the attempts to link him romantically with Ms Yingluck, as well as allegations that he received a huge amount of money to remain aloof from the political problems.

The army's position is understandable. It has learned its lessons from the 2006 coup, staged by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin. The putsch, while ousting Thaksin Shinawatra from power, pushed the country into a deep divide. Another coup would make the situation worse as it would face strong resistance from the red shirts and other government supporters. It would be condemned by the world community.

It should be noted that Gen Prayuth of late seems to have distanced himself from the government and the prime minister as the coup rumours have intensified.

There were reports of a secret meeting between key army figures and Mr Suthep last Sunday at the command of the First Division, King's Guard. But Gen Prayuth insisted the rumours were groundless _ there was no such meeting and the army would not stage a coup, he said.

First Division commander Maj Gen Wara Boonyasit also denied the rumour, saying the military has to strictly follow the army chief's instruction _ that is to remain in their barracks.

It will be interesting to see how the protests led by Mr Suthep unfold. Will the political crisis lead to another coup?

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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