Thais suffer a chilling and retrogressive warning to never discount the possibility of another coup
Newly minted Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong perhaps believed he would make a good first impression by answering the question frankly. Should political turmoil resume anytime under his watch, he said, he would not hesitate to launch another coup. The brutal honesty aside, it was an alarming statement, from which no one should take comfort.
If the experience of the past 12 years has taught Thais anything, it is that military coups do not bring about what might be called normalcy. They might impose peace in violent times, but they also disrupt the natural evolution of democracy and this sets back the country’s development.
The 2006 coup removed from power a corrupt and a divisive figure, Thaksin Shinawatra, but failed in its secondary mission, which was to uproot his support in the North and Northeast. The party he founded and its successors, with their populist appeal, have won every democratic election held since, most recently elevating Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to the premier’s office. When her government’s missteps sparked violent street protests, the generals stepped in again, staging the 2014 coup.
It remains to be seen if the Shinawatra camp can bounce back again in the election now scheduled for February. The playing field certainly appears to be tilted in favour of pro-military parties. However, the ruling junta, seeking to cling to power, knows very well that its allies’ victory at the ballot box would not necessarily promise smooth sailing for the next government.
In fact, Apirat’s bold statement can be seen as testament to this. Like the people who put him in his
powerful post, he knows the 2014 coup still awaits vindication. The post-coup constitution barely passed in a referendum after nearly half of eligible voters rejected it because it didn’t accurately represent their interests. The junta knows the immediate future won’t be rosy, and hence the “warning” from the new Army commander.
However naïve, Thais who yearn for full democracy greet the appointment of every new Army chief with a prayer that he’ll stay out of politics and keep his troops in the barracks. Unfortunately, the generals do not admire democracy and in dire
circumstances will not hesitate
to trample on basic rights.
When Apirat was criticised over a remark that many found in bad taste, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan’s defence was to say Apirat was only stating a common truth – but also that there “should not” be another coup in the future. Somewhat contradictory and hardly reassuring, Prawit’s comment did nothing to repair the damage done by Apirat. By indicating that, if the military is unhappy with any turn or events, there will another coup, Apirat has shattered any lingering hope that democracy might soon begin to grow again.
If politics again gets overheated and chaos resumes in the streets, the government must be prepared to let the rule of law take its course. And if citizens dislike any regime’s policies or actions, they must be allowed to indicate so at the ballot box. Under no circumstances should the tanks roll out against the citizenry. Had the rule of law been followed from the outset, the charges brought against Thaksin and Yingluck would have been far more credible, but instead the affairs were highly politicised and ultimately turned over to the Army. The past dozen years have been a sheer waste.