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Thailand Representative Kim McQuay on Military Takeover and What’s Next

May 28, 2014

KimMcQuayMar2014119One week after the Thai military seized control of the country for the second time in eight years, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand, Kim McQuay, responds to questions from his office in Bangkok on the military intervention, the reaction from the Thai people, and what’s at stake for the country’s immediate future, including the timing of national elections.

How was it that the Thai military leadership transitioned from mediators of the political conflict, to guarantors of public security under martial law, to coup-makers in the span of a few days?

The flurry of events last week was like a milk cart turned rocket sled, fueling debate as to whether the successive martial law declaration and coup were spontaneous measures or the execution of plans that were in the works for some time. Having earned respect for declining to intervene in the protracted political crisis and consistently appealing to the divided political factions to reach a compromise solution in a self-styled mediating capacity, the military leadership declared martial law on May 20 and staged a coup two days later. As head of the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC) that has assumed political authority over Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has repeatedly emphasized that the two-step action was taken for the purpose of maintaining law and order, ensuring public security, and promoting national reconciliation, reiterating that the military establishment had no wish to exercise political power for its own sake but was simply propelled by circumstances. What was most striking in the circumstances was the short span of time and patience that senior military leaders extended to the political actors in brokering two afternoons of fruitless discussion following the martial law declaration before halting the dialogue, transporting participants to undisclosed locations from which many have yet to emerge, and announcing the coup.

Does the coup amount to a triumph by the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Commission (PDRC)?

PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban was one of several senior political leaders on both sides of the conflict taken into custody following the short-lived compromise negotiations that the military authorities convened under martial law. He was subsequently released on bail pending charges for inciting rebellion. Former Pheu Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was summoned to report to the military command and similarly held for a brief period before being released. In the two days separating the declaration of martial law and announcement of the coup, the military leadership appeared to be treating the rival political factions on more or less equal terms. The PDRC demonstrators assembled at the Parliament complex were prohibited from staging protest marches planned for the week that martial law was declared, while the Red-Shirts were similarly confined to the western suburbs of Bangkok, where they had gathered in keeping their distance from PDRC counterparts. While the early steps taken by the NPOMC to enforce the coup and assert its authority are not in synch with Mr. Suthep’s call for a non-elected People’s Council, the removal of the Pheu Thai caretaker government, suspension of the Constitution, strict media controls and scrutiny of social media sites, and other measures taken by the military leadership to assert its authority and check criticism are largely consistent in result with the PDRC mandate of marginalizing Pheu Thai and driving the Shinawatra family from politics.

Given the context, features, and legacy of coups in the Thaksin era, the military intervention has triggered speculation bordering on assumption that senior NPOMC officials are firmly aligned with and beholden to Thailand’s conservative political elites and determined to effect changes under the banner of reform that will marginalize the Shinawatra family or reduce the popular strength of the Pheu Thai party through constitutional, electoral, or other changes. At the same time, some observers are prepared to give General Prayuth the benefit of the doubt, buoyed by the hope that he is mindful of and driven by the opportunity to secure a legacy at the close of his career by exercising a more balanced and independent role. For its part, the NPOMC leadership insists that it is not picking sides, but rather is committed to safeguard the rights and interests of the millions of ordinary Thais who it claims occupy the vacuum between partisan political interests, hold no firm political loyalties or sympathies, and have been held hostage to the political standoff and its economic and other implications. In the coming days and weeks, Thais and the international community will observe the actions of the NPOMC, seeking evidence that the military leaders are operating even-handedly and taking steps to return the country to electoral democracy.

How have the Thai people responded to the coup?

While the coup has been met by a spectrum of opinions spanning elated praise, resigned relief, quiet disappointment, and fiery condemnation, the specter of military intervention had been a matter of speculation for so many weeks that few Thais seemed genuinely surprised when it came. Regardless of where partisan stakeholders and objective observers stand in their understanding of or perspectives on the coup, as political tensions escalated and the heated rhetoric of street protests assumed a sinister edge in the days preceding martial law, few held any hope or confidence that the Pheu Thai caretaker government and its Red-Shirt supporters and the PDRC-Democrat Party alliance were capable of reaching a compromise solution to the impasse on their own volition. In the days following the coup, we have observed a mix of public reactions in the capital, Bangkok. They include those who stridently support or oppose the military intervention based on partisan political loyalties; those who hold no strong political views but seemingly accept the coup as a welcome relief from months of political tension and the consequences of protracted conflict for the Thai economy; those whose lives are little affected by recent events or changes in leadership; and those who are disappointed by the fact that the political environment has once again deteriorated to the point that the military establishment seized license to intervene. Many of those who hold the latter view are not convinced that the military is any better equipped than marginalized civilian political leaders to resolve the tensions released with the collision of a traditional, elite-dominated political culture and an irreversibly evolved, economically empowered, and politically savvy population at large, or to guide the nation in adapting to the realities of the collision.

Speculation abounds regarding potential Red-Shirt response to the coup in the short and long-term. Will the Red-Shirts challenge military authority in Bangkok? Will they retreat to their provincial strongholds and mount an underground resistance campaign against the military, with a threat of violence? Taking stock of the speed at which spontaneous protest rallies have been convened in symbolic locations in Bangkok in opposition to the coup, it is not clear whether the Red-Shirts are driving the reaction or whether the protests have drawn Thais who are simply troubled by a coup in 2014 and its implications for democracy and Thailand’s reputation in the world, regardless of their political leanings or loyalties.

What are the priorities of the NPOMC under the leadership of General Prayuth?

In recent statements and briefings, General Prayuth has indicated that the first priority of the NPOMC is to ensure the economic welfare of the population at large and of economically vulnerable communities in particular; restore international investor confidence in the economy; and return the government to full operational capacity after months of political disruption. Earlier this week, the military authorities took steps to pay rice farmers the $2.8 billion owed under the controversial rice-pledging subsidy scheme of the Pheu Thai government – including those from the North and Northeast, the traditional electoral strongholds of the Pheu Thai party and Thaksin governments. The NPOMC has also announced the appointment of a six-member advisory board that will be tasked with security matters, economic affairs, law and order, and foreign relations, with some members drawn from Pheu Thai but those assigned security functions clearly associated with the traditional elite establishment.

Any sense of the political reform mandate of the NPOMC? Will Thailand see a fresh election in the near future?

The military authorities have hinted at their political reform mandate in fleeting terms, with periodic reference to the creation of a “genuine” Thai democracy. General Prayuth has at times signaled impatience in deflecting respected Thai journalists who doggedly press him for further details on the substance and the timing of reforms or other tough questions. In a briefing to the international community on May 23, General Prayuth referred to the appointment of a set of working councils that would be tasked with legal and legislative affairs and broader reform mandates. More recently, he has hinted at plans to create national unity and to reduce color-dominated political and social divisions as a prelude to unspecified reforms. General Prayuth has held his hand closest to his chest in fielding questions about the timing of national elections and the restoration of electoral democracy. Rather than elaborating, he has repeatedly called on critics of the coup for their patience and trust in extending the junta time to complete its early preparations and to subsequently articulate its reform vision. One draws little sense from cryptic remarks of this kind that elections are coming anytime soon.

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