There is a sad inevitability about Thailand’s 19th real or attempted coup d’etat. Given the frequency with which the country’s powerful army has intervened in political confrontations since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and the increasingly bitter, partisan deadlock punctuated by bouts of violence that has characterised Thai politics for years, it cannot be surprising that some 48 hours after the imposition of martial law, the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, suspended the constitution and pronounced himself in charge of the country.
The army has detained a number of prominent political figures, including former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and opposition leaders Suthep Thaugsuban and Jatuporn Promphan. Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister who was deposed in what was termed a “judicial coup” by her supporters earlier in May, is rumoured to have fled the country.
Since Yingluck’s brother Thaksin upended Thailand’s conventional electoral calculus in 2001 by sweeping to power on the strength of the votes of the rural poor, festering tension between his supporters — known as red shirts — on the one hand and the primarily urban elites and the middle class in Bangkok and pro-establishment royalists, the yellow shirts, on the other has frequently erupted in bloody skirmishes. Since November last year, when Yingluck’s government attempted to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin, currently in self-imposed exile, to return, such clashes have been all too common, and scores of people have died.
Though the military has succeeded in restoring order to the streets, at least in the near term, the general’s decision to suspend talks between various political factions to restore electoral democracy suggests an impatience with the arduous process of political accommodation and negotiation. It may also indicate an elite willing to deploy the military for its own ends, to grab power from an elected government it dislikes. The risks to Thailand’s struggling democracy continue to mount.