Quick-fix coups and the unfortunate legacy of 2014
Past military interventions have led to popular belief they hold out a miracle cure to deep-seated problems
Some "successes" in governments connected to military coups spell danger for a country where many have grown immune to putsches and look to them for a quick fix to national problems, argues Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a professor of politics and government at Thammasat University.
"What's interesting to note is that bloodless coups have bred certain successes and that's where the danger lurks," he said, referring to the performance of governments installed by or linked to the putsches.
The danger of coups is not in their failures but their successes, imagined or real, said the professor.
Many people have grown accustomed to coups being a convenient conduit to manage problems in the country. That in turn supplants the usual political avenues through which solutions can be found and undermines the merits of following such a path.
To his mind, coups come across as effective in alleviating pressing issues, but in the long run, they leave serious ramifications for the political structure of the country.
"A coup's success blinds us to its toxicity," said Prof Chaiwat.
Coups present no answer to deep-seated social divisions; they merely put a lid on them, he said.
Prof Chaiwat said the May 22, 2014 coup is unique in that the National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO) top brass who engineered it have stayed in power longer than those who carried out the three previous putsches. This allows for a long cooling-off period, during which those frustrated by the coup see their discontent taper off, while others come to take the coup for granted.
The "success" of the NCPO-led coup is that it was able to maintain security and order in the country, although it scored low in handling the economy.
The 2014 coup has been followed by times of immense change, from the passing of King Rama IX to the US-China trade war and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Some problems have exposed underlying issues in society, particularly widening social disparity.
Another oddity about the 2014 coup is the top brass are trying to revert the country to the bureaucratic state of five decades past. The government, for example, has laid down a long-term national strategy for national administration.
It can only be inferred that future governments must conform to the strategy, which deprives them of initiatives in forging new policies outside the framework.
In the meantime, Prof Chaiwat said younger generations who want to embark on new paths have resorted to political expressions such as flash mobs and the "seeking the truth" laser projection campaign.
Young politicians are also raising issues their predecessors rarely touched on, including military reform and defence spending.
"Today, the noise surrounding the question of how to prevent a military coup is quieting down," the academic said.
Army commander-in-chief Apirat Kongsompong, who may have the answer, has refused to rule out a military revolt in the future.
"The military normally stays out of politics. But if the higher institution is slandered or there is a repeat of the social unrest and the torching of the city [during the 2010 mass protest in central Bangkok], the military will never allow that to happen," Gen Apirat said.
The 2010 protest by the red shirts against the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration gave way to a new government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, who came to power on Aug 5, 2011.
Yingluck, the country's first female prime minister, had no idea her government would meet the same fate as the administration headed by her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a coup engineered by army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin in 2006.
A source familiar with the matter said that early in her premiership, Yingluck was close to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who was then army chief.
At the request of Gen Prayut, Yingluck, who in 2013 also came to hold the dual posts of prime minister and defence minister, approved the appointment of Gen Apirat, at the time a major-general, as chief of the 1st Division, King's Guard.
It is known within the army that the division oversees vital manpower capable of mounting a military coup. Yingluck inked the appointment despite Gen Apirat being deplored by the red shirts, who made up a sizeable base of support for her government. Gen Apirat led troops in clashes with the red shirts during the 2010 protest.
The demise of the Yingluck government loomed large when Worachai Hema, a Samut Prakan MP of the then ruling Pheu Thai Party, proposed an amnesty bill to exonerate people who faced criminal charges for engaging in mass protests between Sept 19, 2006 and May 10, 2011.
He said the bill would pacify political conflicts and bring about national reconciliation.
But the bill was criticised for broadly exonerating wrongdoers of political violence and its allegedly implicit aim was to benefit former premier Thaksin.
The bill provoked resistance that led to the consolidation of a mass demonstration under the banner of the People's Democratic Reform Committee directed by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party secretary-general.
The PDRC protests, launched in October 2013, carried on for months, during which time some protesters were attacked and killed by unknown actors, as political tensions in the country rapidly escalated. The source said Gen Prayut had drawn up a blueprint for the coup and transferred soldiers and armaments to the capital.
Yingluck dissolved parliament in December 2013 and called for a snap election which was boycotted by the opposition and protesters.
She remained caretaker premier until the Constitutional Court removed her as prime minister and defence minister on May 7, 2014 for abusing her power in dismissing Thawil Pliensri, National Security Council secretary-general, back in 2011.
After the Pheu Thai-led government was seen as crippled in the face of a constitutional impasse, the army chief established a command to deal with rising security turmoil, imposing martial law on May 20, 2014.
For the two days that followed, the command invited rival groups to a meeting in a bid to break the impasse via a national administration.
The talks hit a dead-end and Gen Prayut declared he had to seize power from the caretaker government on May 22, 2014.