The phrase "coup d'tat" strikes fear in the hearts of many observers, especially those in the West, for whom democracy has been the norm for decades.
However, in a country like Thailand, which has experienced multiple coups, tolerance of military takeovers has grown over the years. That is, until the recent overthrow of what its supporters called a democratically elected Pheu Thai government, which Yingluck Shinawatra led to power with a landslide victory at the polls in 2011.
Thailand has witnessed many coups in its modern history, the first as early as 1932.
It’s been a month since the latest military intervention, when General Prayuth Chan-ocha dissolved the caretaker government and Senate and established a junta administration under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Arguments for and against the military’s intervention have been aired ever since. Critics of the coup point to the response from the West, where the junta’s action has been condemned and penalised with a downgrade in diplomatic relations.
As for us – a foreigner who grew up in the West but has spent part of his life in Thailand, and a Thai who spends equal time in Thailand and overseas – here’s how we see it.
Whatever terms General Prayuth coined for his actions, they received immediate scrutiny from the Western world and its leaders. The West called for an immediate return to democratic rule, threatening sanctions if the junta did not comply. Western states responded robustly when the NCPO banned political gatherings, imposed a curfew and media censorship and arrested politicians and activists. Supporters of the ousted Pheu Thai-led government cited the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry: there was “no justification” for the coup. Meanwhile, most mainstream foreign media portrayed the military takeover as unacceptable.
But many residents of Thailand, foreign and Thai alike, are glad Thailand has return to some semblance of normalcy, even if the context is questionable. Escalating confrontation between pro- and anti-government protesters since November last year had “shut down” Bangkok and frustrated the daily activity of both businesses and citizens. As a result, many welcomed the military’s intervention, seeing it as a necessary action to halt escalating unrest that had crippled the city and left the caretaker government impotent.
However, there is a strand of domestic and international discourse that treats this coup as a mere repetition of the 2006 military takeover that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. This discourse explains both coups as the action of elites desperate to maintain their faltering grip on power, with rural Thais suppressed as a by-product.
Having examined the debate from both sides, our conclusion is that this coup is not a rerun of 2006. It seems that the military learned from past mistakes and took a new approach. It could of course be called underhand, but the 2014 strategy also brought an instant end to the political street battles.
Unfortunately, many foreign onlookers have failed to notice the difference.
Now almost a month after the coup, tight restrictions on the public and media censorship have been slackened substantially. The curfew has been lifted. General Prayuth has even recorded a song, a PR stunt staged in a bid to reassure the West that this is no ordinary self-interested military coup.
Regardless of how foreign observers see the political turmoil, life in Thailand has mostly continued as usual, with people glued to the spectacle of the World Cup. When there is no better option, it seems that coups are accepted here as a way of escaping from violent political deadlock. This mindset may be an insult to Western values. It may turn away foreign investment. But those who view this coup with the “same-same” rhetoric are ignoring several salient facts. For one, the resulting stability has restored Thai confidence. Proof? The stock exchange is on the rise, the baht is appreciating and domestic investment is at an all-time high. Desperate farmers who were left penniless by the former government’s rice-pledging scheme have finally been paid for their crops. Tourists are returning.
A quick fix?
Absolutely; the coup cannot be a long-term solution. Political reform “should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable”, said Chinese pro-democracy dissident Liu Xiaobo (who has been imprisoned for his views).
Like the countries swept by the Arab Spring, Thailand is facing a new beginning. The next step is watch the junta closely and make sure it follows through on its promises and restores a form of democratic governance that suits the majority of Thais, whatever that may be.
Hopefully, our new political model will reflect the “middle-path” ideology espoused by His Majesty. It will be neither “Western” nor “Eastern”, and avoid the trap of rigid norms, whether they be democratic, totalitarian or even crony-capitalist.
The novice may point to Arab Spring states and say Thailand risks falling into the same pit. Having seen both worlds, we reject this talk. In fact Thailand has strong foundations – of culture, education and infrastructure – that will bring it through to the forefront among its soon-to-be Asean Community partners. “Same-same coup”, you may say, but this time the aftermath will be different.
Dr Deekana Tipchanta is a social science lecturer at Mahidol University International College. Tilmann Kaiser is majoring in social science at the university.