Friday, May 23, 2014

A Cold War Coup

Editorial: A Cold War Coup

Yesterday’s military coup d’état was the latest addition to Thailand’s long history of military interventions.

Like so many other previous coupmakers, the military junta, which calls itself the Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC), has claimed that their seizure of power was “necessary” to steer Thailand out of its political crisis.

But a look back to the most recent coup in 2006 shows that the last military intervention accomplished just the opposite.

In fact, the battle that’s been playing out on Bangkok’s streets for the past seven months was ignited precisely by the previous military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra eight years ago.

Thakskin, a corrupt telecommunications tycoon, won the support of rural Thais with populist polices that supported the country’s long-neglected poor. Putting aside questions about the purity of his intentions, Mr. Thaksin’s policies and rhetoric inarguably played a central role in empowering Thailand’s masses to become active players in the political sphere.

The military’s removal of Thaksin in 2006 was perceived as an attempt to eradicate the threat that the "nouveau riche" Thaskin and his popularity posed to Thailand’s royalist establishment. The military’s decision to stage another coup yesterday suggests they learned a lesson from 2006: removing Thaksin wasn’t enough.
Instead of removing the challenge to Thailand’s old guard, the 2006 coup gave birth to a grass-roots, anti-establishment movement composed of rural farmers, urban poor, and progressive intelligentsia who are fed up with decades of conservative rule by the elite.

The target of the 2006 coup was Thaksin. This time, it is the ascendant mass movement his ousting created.
Yesterday, the military decided to dissolve the Thaksin-backed Cabinet, but preserve the Senate, Courts, and so-called “independent” agencies that are all flagrant allies of Thailand's establishment.

If the military's goal is to dismantle Thailand's new network of anti-establishment activists, the 2014 coup is poised to be far more authoritarian than any coup in the recent past. Silencing Thailand's "awakened" masses will require extreme suppression.

Under martial law, the military is granted wide-spread powers that trample on a number of human rights.
In its first day of rule alone, the military has already moved to censor the media, ban public demonstrations, and suspend the Constitution. A handful of Redshirt leaders have already been detained by the army, while scores of others have been summoned and banned from leaving the country.

This level of suppression in only the first 24 hours of military rule suggests that the 2014 coup will be much more oppressive than the last.

In fact, it feels like the clocks have been turned back to 1958, when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seized power with a military junta backed by the palace and the United States.

Back then, the military perceived itself as fighting a cosmic battle against an underground Communist movement that was attempting to “overthrow the monarchy” and “subvert the nation.”

In the decade that followed, the military relentlessly cracked down on social activists and rural leaders suspected of giving support to the Communists. Whether their connection to the Communists was real or imagined did not matter; in the eyes of the military dictators, they were all enemies of "the Nation, the Religion, and the Monarchy."

There is little evidence that Thailand’s armed forces have progressed beyond this Cold War mentality, raising concerns that the military may resurrect a sweeping crackdown on dissidents today.

Following the 1958 coup, the military suspended all democratic institutions in Thailand for more than a decade, all on the pretext of preserving "national security" from the menace of "Red Threats."

There was no Constitution, parliament, or elections for more than ten years.

It is not clear whether the today’s coupmakers will take such a drastic step to prevent Thaksin and his supporters from winning back power.

We can only hope that Thailand's still fragile democracy in the 21st century will not become a casualty of the 2014 coup as well.
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