Four years ago today, General Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a military coup d’etat to topple the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first woman prime minister. The rationale the general offered was that control had to be restored over a dangerous situation that the civilian politicians had let fester.
In October 2013, the Democrat Party splintered, with some of its members forming the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and taking to the streets demanding that Yingluck resign for attempting to pass an amnesty law forgiving people involved in the political conflict since the previous coup in 2006.
Prayut’s power grab was utterly predictable. The social elite and the street protesters were demanding the Army step in. Prayut denied reports he’d struck a deal with the most outspoken protest leader, who clearly saw that another election wouldn’t solve the conflict. Despite their “reform before election” platform, the elite and the Democrat politicians knew they couldn’t count on votes to regain power. So it was odd to hear their calls for another election once they understood the coup had left them in the wilderness and that the military junta was intent on holding onto the reins almost entirely alone.
There has in fact never in Thai history been a “good coup”, and the 2014 coup was worse in some ways. This junta never intended to introduce deep and necessary reforms, nor steer Thailand quickly back to democracy. It has shown it wants only to establish a bureaucracy under military leadership, if not a military state.
Despite the junta’s claims, the charter and hundreds of other laws and regulations it promulgated and its long-term strategic plan form an outline for future governments to skew towards autocracy, not democracy. The roles of the military and bureaucracy have been expanded in several sectors. “National security” is now defined as entrenchment of power. The threats are not foreign enemies but the Shinawatra family, the red shirts and politicians who support them, and the critics who speak the truth too loudly.
There are no armed invaders at our borders, and yet the defence budget has increased sharply since the coup.
The junta has been procuring armaments as though an attack were imminent, and it seems to matter not that the hardware purchased is probably worthless in modern-day conventional warfare. People in Bangkok only see tanks when there’s a coup. When was the last time we saw them roll into combat?
Observers inside and outside the country appear agreed that this junta launched reforms not for the people’s benefit but to consolidate its hold on power. Like other coup leaders have done before him, Prayut is scrambling for political support now that he’s been forced to call an election. He is behaving in ways he used to publicly vilify, embracing the very politicians who once disgusted him. He is spending taxpayers’ money on his disguised election campaign. He is touting a populist platform of the sort that once sickened him. Hundreds of billions of baht have gone to buying hearts and minds, notably in his rivals’ strongholds.
The vast majority of Thais have derived no benefit at all from the coup. The “peace and stability” we supposedly enjoy thanks to the generals is an illusion. There is plenty of animosity bubbling just under the surface. Four years – and we got nowhere.