It has been a cool, confident, self-assured takeover by the military. With no apparent security reason on the ground for the announcement of martial law it is likely that blame will be assigned to potential Red Shirt attacks. However, security incidents recently have not exceeded in scope or pace the normal level of unrest expected in this sort of political atmosphere.
All of the events in a season of coordinated protest need to be taken in context.
The events of the last seven months are not random, stand-alone events, but part of a coordinated effort by a wide range of powers to protect their prerogatives in the face of a political party that has repeatedly proclaimed they would rewrite the charter to eliminate the political powers that can check and balance a sitting government. The anti-government protests were part of that effort and accomplished their mission with stunning success (despite the dismissive reception they have received in the media for their reactionary rhetoric)–the Shinawatra prime minister is gone, the government is in virtual hiding, the military is on the streets, and a “compromise” government is now expected to be formed.
Martial law, on top of the events of the last six months, is meant to drive home the reality that the unelected powers in the Thai political world retain the ability and will to resist Pheu Thai political dominance. Happening when an aimless, headless government still clings to power, martial law can be considered a coup or at least a step into a political vacuum by the military. It is a lead up to the hoped-for announcement of an interim government as well as a way to demonstrate to present government MPs that there is no reason for further allegiance to Thaksin.
The military was likely further emboldened by a lack of follow through from the Red Shirts. Threats that the faithful would wage civil war if Yingluck was removed from power have come to nothing. The goalposts were quickly switched to a new threat of rage if a new PM is appointed.
Government MPs were positively docile and unfazed after the removal of Yingluck. Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan has been virtually invisible, obviously not actually leading the government (nor any faction of MPs), and retreated to the north shortly after his appointment like Prime Minister Somchai did in 2008 when a PAD protest engulfed Bangkok.
Early in 2014, the army publicly proclaimed that its role in the conflict would be maintaining and restoring peace in the case of violent clashes between protesters and other government officers (such as the police who are thought to remain loyal to Thaksin). This is a casting of the military in its traditional, self-appointed role as a protector of Thai unity and has put the government on notice that it cannot resist the protesters without risking military action. Creating “disunity” is traditionally (or supposedly) the greatest sin in Thai society–trumping the desire for free speech. It is the ultimate threat of Thai protests that they are displaying disunity and that means unity must be restored or anger and violent acting out will result.
Over the last few months, the military has taken actions that made it clear they would not support government efforts to contain or disperse the anti-protesters–all the while maintaining a public face of neutrality. Indeed, there have been headlines in the international press such as “Military Neutral for Now” while the military was being deployed to protect the protesters from attacks from government sympathizers. It is this weight, both on the streets and behind the scenes, that allowed a small anti-government force—usually no more than 20,000–to enforce its will in the city by invading ministries to create a sense of government powerlessness.
Thus the announcement yesterday from Commander-in Chief Prayuth that the military would be acting as a mediator to bring both sides together must have made Thaksin’s blood run cold–and was a sign to the Thai political world that they should consider Thaksin influence to be waning. The “compromise” political future is intended to remove Shinawatra family influence from politics and dent any future ability for amnesty and a charter rewrite.
One real danger now is military overconfidence. History indicates that the Thai military does not have the tact to stage manage a political crisis. All the coups and power grabs of the past (with the possible exception of the 2006 coup) ended up being marred by military officials trying to grab too much power, installing themselves in positions of power, and doing what they criticize Thaksin for doing—rewriting laws for their own benefit. However, Commander-in-Chief Prayuth appears to possess more political aplomb than the bumbling army commanders of the past who became involved in “saving the nation.”
The composition of a new government would be critical. A new government that shuts out present Pheu Thai MP factions or one emphasizing military men in top positions would generate further conflict. That is why it will be important to get Pheu Thai MPs to participate. Likewise, if major Democrat Party leaders feature too prominently in a new government, this would also be an irritant, not only to the Red Shirts, but to the Thai political class in general as it will be seen that the Democrats, who have not been able to win at the ballot box, are elbowing their way into power.
The failure of the deployment of the Red Shirts to confront the anti-government protesters so far is one of the surprising outcomes of the present round of protests. The movement as a force on the ground was conceived after the 2008 PAD march to the airport and intended to combat just such an eventuality.
However, once again the military was standing by (and even protecting) anti-government protesters who were trying to force an elected government from power. The Red Shirts have not delivered on threats to cause chaos or even assemble large groups to face off against protesters and defend the government in Bangkok as they always promised to do. From this perspective it is easy to understand the sense of disappointment from true Red Shirt believers as a relatively small group of anti-government protesters marched around Bangkok unchallenged even after the years of threats from Red Shirt leaders who promised blood if that ever happened.
Anti-Thaksin groups are pressing home a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop Thaksin, but must do it in a way that makes it hard for government supporters to go on a rampage. They are sending a message that a Shinawatra is unlikely to head the government again and thus the many factions of MPs that make up the Pheu Thai (all stemming for the political parties that Thaksin purchased to create his electoral majority back in the Thai Rak Thai days) are forced to rethink their allegiances and perhaps join in a comprise unity government.
Despite these desires for Thaksin influence to be removed, Thaksin has always been able to maintain party order. His choice now is between demanding a total boycott of MPs from participating in a compromise government or joining in with the option of a mass walk out at some future point to demand immediate elections.
The result of the present political disruptions might actually result in future election strength for the Pheu Thai as disgruntled voters show their support for a premier they feel has been unfairly treated and a party that put money in their pockets. This is why the Pheu Thai Party and the Red Shirts continue to push for quick elections–and why the rest of the political world wants to drag things out as long as they can.
There are still many variables—army figures who want wide punishment of the Pheu Thai and Red Shirts for making the monarchy a villain in the political drama, extremists on both sides who wish to attack protest groups and trigger a crisis, Democrats who want to capitalize on the situation to grab power for themselves, and the decision Thaksin might take to fight back.
So far, there is little room for any outside surprise to make an impact. Each of these variables, if they occurred, would play into the hands of the other side. Thaksin can pin his hopes on new elections and emphasize that it is time for his supporters to stand up for democracy and the sanctity of their vote. There will also be a mass effort made to show that the military are not impartial as they claim and that they are now engaged directly in politics.
Quick elections would mean a return to power for the Thaksin majority, a rebuke of the idea that Thaksin is finished, and a return to rewriting the constitution and amnesty. This is why new elections will be stalled for as long as possible and a new “compromise” government will be pushed to create reforms that make it impossible for a new Pheu Thai majority to easily rewrite the charter or otherwise dominate the political scene.
There is something frightening and attention-grabbing about the phrase “martial law,” but it is important to understand how insular Thais are despite the nation’s reliance on tourism and exports. Many in the establishment will think nothing of taking the country though years of turmoil to ensure a desired future where the current range of powers maintain their prerogatives.
In their mind, they fear of the dominance of one party with the will to rewrite the rules in its favor and shut other parties out of power. How these events eventually work out have the potential to destroy the conception of the nation that they built over the decades—a political playing field where no party reins supreme presided over by a benevolent monarch who serves as a symbol of selflessness in contrast with the venality of creeping democratic politics.
This view is not supposed to be judged true nor false, but is a kind of self-stereotype that underpins nation building. It has been challenged as never before by electoral politics in the last 15 years and openly mocked by a new generation of politicians who continue to ride Thaksin’s political coattails. And now the Thai military is again wading into the fray.
Coming weeks and months will see efforts to stall elections with a far-off election date set to placate government supporters and foreign observers. In the meantime plans for a new government will be floated and endlessly debated, all in an effort to sap Thaksin’s political capital. The new government will be understood to be a tool to both delay as well as retool the political system to ensure that no single political party can use an electoral majority to simply rewrite the constitution in a way that threatens the existing political power balance.
Whether all the stakeholders involved can really join together to make this happen is uncertain, but this is the establishment’s last, best hope to finally isolate Thaksin–and they have never been this close before.
2Bangkok.com Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.