After Thailand’s military overthrew the government and seized power in a coup on May 22, its new ultraconservative rulers wasted no time in rolling out the most radical and repressive right-wing reforms the country has seen since the height of the Cold War.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha is now prime minister. The administration of the nation is being conducted out of an army base, and its people ruled by decree.
The constitution and the legislature have been abolished. The police force, one of the few credible potential sources of armed resistance, is on its way to being dissolved. A night-time curfew and a ban on protests remains in effect.
Senior figures from the former government, including the former PM, high-level public servants, and dozens of pro-democracy activists and academics have been arbitrarily detained and face court marshal.
Meanwhile, the military has launched an all-out assault on free speech and the media. It has assumed control of all major media outlets and suspended or dismantled any rival sources of information.
The intimidation of journalists is fast becoming commonplace, with speaker trucks roaming the streets barking out old-school propaganda. Thais are warned to be wary of trusting foreign journalists or believing in “divisive” information.
A crackdown on social media also has begun in earnest, with critics warned that their online dissent is being recorded. Facebook and Instagram were blocked on May 28 to great outcry and harsh action is expected against individual “offenders”.
The coup-makers justified the hostile takeover of the Southeast Asian nation by claiming that democracy was facilitating instability and violence. They pointed to the series of bombings against anti-democracy “Yellow Shirt” protesters in the months preceding the coup, for which no responsibility was claimed, as an example.
Yet a core demand of these Yellow Shirts was for a coup, as well as a long-term suspension of democracy. They seek absolute rule by the monarchy, military and a council of conservative “good men” who would put the country back onto a morally-virtuous pathway.
Many analysts viewed the military’s staunch defence of these right-wing protesters from the police force as suggestive it has been complicit in destabilising the country from the start. It protected the Yellow Shirt protesters even when they occupied government buildings across the country earlier this year and closed down hundreds of polling booths during the March general elections, leading to election results being annulled.
This impression has been strengthened by the promotion of General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda to a council advising the junta. They were instrumental in the 2006 coup and 2009/10 bloody crackdown against pro-democracy “Red Shirt” activists, and are are known supporters of the Yellow Shirt protesters.
Indeed, Thailand’s serial coup-makers seem less concerned with hiding their self-interest and heavy-handedness than ever. Dissidents and critics being rounded up by the hundreds.
On May 27, two journalists were summoned to appear before the junta for questioning its intentions regarding elections. A military spokesperson confirmed its view that the manner of their questioning was “inappropriate”.
Later that day, education minister in the overthrown government Chaturon Chaisang was arrested by soldiers in front of the international press after he emerged from hiding to give a surprise press conference.
Yet for all their strong-arm tactics and impressive track record for overthrowing democratically-elected governments over the decades, there are some signs that the Thai military may be facing an insurmountable challenge in its bid for total control.
For one thing, protests against the coup have defied the regime's outlawing of assembly continue and are growing. Furthermore, the economy of Thailand continues to destabilise to the point of recession, with trade shrinking in April, and factory output maintaining a 13-month decline.
The Thai military, and indeed the nation’s conservative establishment in its entirety, draws its legitimacy and power from the stature of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who presides over a US$30 billion empire and is worshipped by many Thais as a demi-god.
However, the 86-year-old monarch is already on life-support and his immediate successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is loathed by the Yellow Shirts. He is rumoured to have strong links with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in the 2006 coup and is the brother of recently ousted PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
Indeed, many analysts have linked the 2006 coup, as well as the recent one, to the issue of royal succession and the question of who will be in power when the time comes to manage it.
Although they have the tanks, guns, courts, and Yellow Shirts, time is not on the side of the coup-makers. They now face an opposition with nothing to lose.