Representatives from the two sides of Thailand’s political conflict sat around a table on the afternoon of May 22 for the second day of negotiations hosted by the Royal Thai Army. The meeting took place under the military's self-declared martial law.
It was clear from the outset that no agreement between the pro- and anti-democracy forces would be reached. And so at about 3pm, the army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, laid his cards on the table by bluntly presenting government representatives with one option ― resign.
When they refused, the ultraconservative general promptly declared that he was seizing power and had everyone present at the meeting arrested.
With that statement, Thailand’s 12th full-blown coup began ― the second aimed to be aimed at expunging the southeast Asian nation of the influence of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But there is more to this coup than merely “resetting the clocks” to 2006, and everybody knows it.
Since the last coup, Thailand, especially the rural north and northeast of the country, has seen the flowering of a vast, communitarian, educated and social-media savvy people-power movement dedicated to replacing the royalist establishment-dominated “Thai-style democracy” with something more genuine and representative.
This movement, a broad coalition of activist “Red Shirts”, enlightened academics, and even disaffected businesspeople, has outgrown the influence of Thaksin and become a powerful force for change.
The purpose of this coup d’etat will be to eradicate that force altogether.
In effect, the coup began on May 20 ― just over four years since the last bloody crackdown against the Red Shirts ― with the imposition of martial law by the military. It came complete with draconian restrictions on basic human rights, and the mobilisation of armed soldiers across the country.
Soldiers moved onto key intersections, inside government offices, around sites where protests are known to take place, and even into newsrooms.
At first, military spokespeople denied that a coup was in motion, but this dissembling did not last long. With the official announcement of the takeover, Thailand’s conservative establishment is free to carry out a purge of progressive and otherwise dissent-inclined elements from society, the likes of which have not seen since the bloody coup of 1976.
The military has already assumed total control over traditional media outlets, forcing them to play Cold War era royalist propaganda and applause for the coup. They are rapidly moving against social media as well.
A nighttime curfew is in effect and is being used to eliminate potential threats without the inconvenience of witnesses (or traffic jams). Hundreds of summonses have been issued against people and arrests made of potential opponents. For his part, Prayuth has declared himself interim prime minister.
So far, the coup-makers have been successful in rapidly and pre-emptively defending itself from inevitable retaliation by the pro-democracy Red Shirts and their sympathisers. In recent months, red Shirts have threatened insurrection and civil war should such a military takeover eventuate. Although there have been sporadic, and technically illegal, protests across the country, there has been, as yet, no violent response to the coup.
With a military government once again in control of the Land of Smiles, the future of the country will be determined by whether or not its democracy-loving peoples are prepared to put aside their desire for change and go back to smiling again.