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Thailand’s Military Coup: A Tenuous Democracy

By Lara Pham

After over six months of anti-government protests, Thailand’s army imposed martial law throughout the country and, on Thursday, May 22nd, officially carried out military coup. The army vowed to only stay in power to encourage dialogue between conflicting parties, and restore civilian rule once peace and stability were restored among the people. But it has since reneged on its promise, staying in power. While the streets remain relatively calm in Bangkok and other areas of Thailand, should there be cause for concern?

Thailand is no stranger to coups. Since the end of the country’s absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has undergone no less than 12 successful coups, with the most recent in 2006. Those who seem surprised by recent activities have been called naïve and uninformed. A “coup” or “military takeover” can assume a different form in the Thai context, where perhaps quotidian life has barely changed, as opposed to elsewhere like Egypt. But this façade should not detract from the military’s efforts to undermine democracy.

While the military takeover has created an international frenzy, the streets remain relatively calm in Thailand. Although the curfew has created some traffic issues and long lines for public transit, reports show that daily life as barely changed. People are going to work. Airports are still running with daily incoming and outgoing flights as scheduled. Taxis and public transportation are available, though perhaps more crowded around curfew. Tourist attractions, government offices, shops, restaurants, and malls remain open, but have adjusted their hours for the curfew. A quick glance at city streets show that martial law has had little impact on day-to-day life. It seems only protestors and Facebook users have problems.

Has Thailand remained truly unchanged? Or is this sense of complacency merely the calm before the storm?

The relatively undisturbed streets of Thailand mask the underlying instability that could jeopardize the country’s democratic prospects. When General Prayuth Chan-ocha imposed martial law on May 20th, and subsequently assumed power on Thursday of that week – he made sweeping changes to Thai democracy. As expected, a new sheriff comes with new rules, but his changes were above and beyond the realm of acceptable. Thailand’s constitution of 2007 was suspended, except for Section 2, which acknowledges the king as the head of state. Schools were closed from Friday through Sunday, which are normally opened. A curfew was set from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., but has now been somewhat relaxed.

Thai television and radio stations were broadcasting messages from the army. Many international news channels like CNN and BBC have been taken off the air. Social media platforms are threatened with shutdown if they contain “provocative content.” Political gatherings of five people or more are banned with penalties of up to one year in jail time and/or a 10,000 baht ($300) fine. Traces of Thai democracy have been eradicated.

The international community has explicitly expressed their concerns about the country’s tenuous democracy. The U.S. State Department called for “a return to democracy through early elections;” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged “full respect for democratic principles;” the European Union issued a statement highlighting the importance of returning “rapidly to the legitimate democratic process;” and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that he hopes that the conflict can be “settled peacefully through the democratic process.” The world is worried and rightfully so.

While it may appear as though the coup’s effects are limited to politicians and protestors, the underlying reality is more troubling. Benjamin Tausig, a professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University who specializes in Thai music and protest, argues that the military’s recent behavior constitutes a “major shift in the way ordinary Thais live.” Controlling media (social and traditional) and detaining journalists, activists, and academics fundamentally violates principles of democracy. Tausig also notes that this latest coup is different to that in 2006 since the military “kicked out” the entire government, not only the prime minister. He highlights the risk of the military replacing key structural elements of the parliament and legal system “almost certainly without popular approval.” A military government would be out of the ordinary.

It is disconcerting to see the military facilitate nontransparent, backdoor political dealings. It is holding former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and others in custody against their will in a secret location to give them “time to think” and “find common ground.” The army is also specifically seeking out those who are critical of the coup and working to silence them, including former education minister Chaturon Chaseing. Whether or not military rule will create long-term stability and democracy is certainly questionable. Duncan McCargo, professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University who is best known for his extensive fieldwork-based research on the politics of Thailand, would like to see the Thai people and international community continue its demands for a “timetable for a return to political normalcy.”

The military has said that it plans to hold elections sometime in the second half of 2015. Unfortunately, this rough, lengthy deadline for elections is conditional on vague reforms that include potentially amending “rules and regulations.” The military cannot continue to proceed without a transparent and accountable framework for its return to civilian rule. The coup might seem invisible in Thais’ daily life, but it has disrupted the democratic foundation of that life.

Recent events warrant a robust pathway to return to democracy. The international community can continue its diplomatic pressure, which will hopefully open up space for the Thai people to democratically determine their political future.

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Lara Pham is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a master's candidate in international affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and Wikimedia]

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