THAILAND: Talk of the Next Coup Raises Political Temperature

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 3, 2010 (IPS) – A Thai national habit of openly speculating if this South-east Asian kingdom is on the verge of its next coup d’etat is in full flight.

Newspaper reports and commentaries are feeding this guessing game of the country’s powerful military mounting the 19th putsch. It comes three and a half years after the army successfully staged the last one, on Sept. 19 2006, to oust the elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The 18th coup, in fact, began with a similar political script as the one currently unfolding. The press began speculating about a looming coup in early 2006, the military commanders denied it, till the tanks rumbled through Bangkok’s streets.

‘COUP DEBATE REFUSES TO DIE,’ screamed the headline in Monday’s edition of ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily. The story that followed pointed to the inevitable. “To many observers, a military coup still looms on the horizon, and the question tilts towards when it would happen rather than if it would occur,” wrote managing editor Thanong Khanthong.

The military, for its part, has helped fan the flames by a series of recent incidents. On the night of Jan. 25, 22 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were spotted driving through the streets of Bangkok, resembling the scene that had played out on the night of Sept. 19, 2006.

This time, though, the APCs were on the streets for a more mundane mission: maintenance and repair work. Yet the apologies offered by the military brass for causing panic in politically jittery Thailand did little to slow down the rumour mill.

Soon after that, the military succeeded in raising more eyebrows through a show of force more typical of a political party than a professional, united fighting force. Hundred of troops, in military fatigues, came out in camps in and around Bangkok to make a public pledge of loyalty in support of the powerful army chief, Anupong Paojinda. This “unprecedented” show of force, as some Thai newspapers described it, was to deliver a sharp warning to serving soldiers and retired generals who had thrown their weight behind an anti-government protest movement loyal to Thaksin, currently in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption handed down by a Thai court in 2008.

Little wonder why the country’s one-year-old coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has little to fear the army. After all, Abhisit’s coalition was formed in December 2008 involving backroom deals shaped by the army than through a popular mandate.

“There is no conflict between the government and the military so a coup is unlikely,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for the coalition government, told IPS. “There is no chaos and no instability, which are the normal conditions that lead to military intervention.”

Such a reading draws from events that preceded the last coup. The Thaksin administration, which had won two successive elections with thumping majorities, was besieged by months of street demonstrations in Bangkok calling for its ouster.

The anti-Thaksin protesters, drawn from Bangkok’s well-heeled and the country’s conservative elite and monarchists, created a tense political atmosphere that, analysts said at the time, saw the military step in to serve as a “circuit-breaker” and to avoid a potential bloodshed.

But in this kingdom’s rich history of coups, there have been the occasional putsches that have followed a uniquely “Thai style” logic – of the military mounting a coup against itself to reshape the political landscape.

The coup of Nov. 17, 1971 saw then military dictator, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikarchorn, stage a coup against his own government. A similar coup-against-itself was staged by military strongmen in October 1958 and November 1951.

This year, though, a putsch may add a new chapter in the Thai military’s mastery at staging coups. Leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirt-wearing pro-Thaksin protest movement, said that they and their supporters – a vocal opposition force – may be the target if the military decides to intervene.

“The purpose of the next coup d’etat is not to overthrow the current government, but to suppress the opposition, the people critical of the elite bureaucratic system and the aristocracy,” Jaran Ditapichai, a former human rights commissioner and UDD leader, told IPS. “We have been protesting to discredit this elite system, the ‘amart’.”

A potential flashpoint is a judgment on Feb. 26 by the Supreme Court to decide the fate of Thaksin’s 2.2 billion U.S. dollars worth of assets that were frozen by the junta that took power after ousting the Thaksin administration in the September 2006 coup.

Thaksin’s supporters within the UDD have been threatening a clash with the government ahead of the verdict. The judges who will rule on this case have also been threatened, prompting the Abhisit administration to boost their security.

The judgment day will help clarify how serious these coup rumours are, Chaturon Chaisang, a former minister in the ousted Thaksin administration, remarked in an IPS interview. “The military does not need to stage a coup right now. But we cannot say what will happen after Feb. 26.”

And if the 19th coup does occur following the court’s verdict, it will confirm the long-held belief within the Thai military that as “guardians of the nation,” they must step in and “save the country” from political chaos,” said Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written extensively about Thai politics. “They believe they have a privileged position as the country’s protectors.”

“This is their starting point in how they view politics in this country,” he explained in an interview. “In their scheme of things the sovereignty of the people does not matter. It is about controlling the people. A form of paternalism.”


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