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This Is Not A Coup
What's Going on in Thailand?

Thailand’s army chief declared martial law early on Tuesday morning in what the military adamantly insisted was not a coup. General Prayuth Chan-ocha said he was forced to deploy the military to “keep peace and maintain the safety and security of the people,” after weeks of often-violent political protests in and around the capital city. He urged people not to panic, as soldiers began appearing around the city and outside TV stations. If the number of smiling Thais taking selfies with soldiers in Bangkok is anything to go by, the public doesn’t seem to be particularly disturbed.

So what’s going on? And why does it matter?

The BBC has a short video that explains the current crisis in 60 seconds. Basically, protestors (Yellow Shirts) have been demonstrating against the government for months now. Led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former member of parliament and organized into the ironically named Democratic Party, they want to establish an unelected “People’s Council” to rule the country. Yellow Shirts are typically urban and middle class and generally hail from central and southern Thailand. Their rivals—Red Shirts—support the government. Yellow Shirts disparage the Reds as provincial and uneducated. Red Shirts hail mostly from rural areas but some are urban and poor. It is on the strength of Red Shirt support that the Shinawtra family and its allies have easily won the last five elections. In return, the government sets up generous subsidies and social programs that benefit farmers and the poor.

The Yellow Shirts want to rid Bangkok politics of Shinawatra influence, and on May 7 they achieved a real victory. Two courts sympathetic to the Yellow Shirt cause found Yingluck Shinawatra, then the Prime Minister, guilty of corruption and abusing her position and threw her out of office.

After that, the Red Shirts got angry. Leaders mobilized thousands of government supporters and descended on Bangkok. Yellow Shirt protestors also demonstrated in the city, promising a “final battle” to get rid of the government once and for all later this week. That’s when the military felt it had to step in.

Though it looks and feels like a coup, the Thai military says it isn’t one. Invoking a century-old law that was last used during a military coup in 1958, the army chief said his soldiers were saving the country from chaos; they shut down certain partisan TV stations and promised the government would remain in charge of civil affairs.

Missing in most of the discussion about the Thai crisis is the role of the monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej may be elderly and aloof, but he exerts a god-like influence over Thai politics and society. Both Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts invoke his name to support their cause, though the Yellow Shirts allege that the Shinawatra clan has emerged as an unwelcome rival to the King’s benevolent rule.

The real Thai crisis is not so much a conflict between pro- and anti-democracy groups but a battle for the right to decide who runs the country after the King is gone. Neither the Yellow Shirts nor the Red Shirts can abide the idea of the other side being in power when the King dies, because whoever is in control of the succession process will have enormous influence over the future direction of the country. The King’s son and successor is widely disliked and his sister can’t become heir without breaking centuries of tradition. As the strength of the monarchy fades, the battle to control the government grows more intense.

So—who’s up and who’s down at this point? With the non-coup coup, Yellow Shirt leader Thaugsuban will be unable to continue his endless protest-marching and anti-government rabble-rousing. The Economist notes that his efforts were failing. Yes—he and his allies on the Courts did succeed in disposing of Yingluck. But they were no closer to achieving their real goal of dispensing with Thai democracy altogether. The Red Shirts, meanwhile, will be nervous about martial law. Will the military shepherd the country toward the election currently scheduled for July? The interim government hopes to move forward with that plan, but it doesn’t look good. The Yellow Shirts, on the other hand, will ask the military to dispense with that silly election and the interim government and establish some kind of unelected ruling council. “The point,” the Economist reports, “would be to depose Thailand’s democracy and with it the chances of electing yet another government loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the one figure who has united democratic majorities in recent years.”

The fight is not yet over.

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  • Andrew Allison

    This simply an attempt by the leaders of the Red Shirts to take advantage of the failure of the King to exert his “god-like influence over Thai politics and society” to gain control of the government without an election which they would surely lose. In other words, an attempted coup. Meanwhile, Thailand is, at least for the present, a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. Perhaps the real question is whether the military will permit that to change and if so, who will be in charge. Seems to me that, under the circumstances, a military coup would be better for Thailand than one by the Red Shirts.

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