Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

First published by The Diplomat

General Prayuth Chan-ocha may have received a royal endorsement for launching a coup in Thailand, but the junta could face serious opposition from a nascent citizen democracy movement.

In the past several days, hundreds of Thais have joined anti-coup protests across the country, defying an army directive against the gathering of more than five persons in public places. Compared to the anti-coup protests in 2006, the rallies last weekend were bigger and more ambitious. Street protests are not new in Thailand, but the growing anti-coup opposition has the potential to develop into a broad and popular democracy campaign that could challenge not just the military dictatorship, but also the credibility of mainstream parties.

For six months, Thailand experienced large and provocative anti-government rallies. Government buildings were occupied, a “Bangkok Shutdown” campaign paralyzed the commercial district for several days, and major highways were barricaded. The protests were similar to a 2008 airport blockade that also destabilized the government.

Looking back, the protests succeeded in consolidating opposition to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. However it is curious that, for a supposedly pro-democracy movement, the protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee didn’t get the support of global human rights groups and activist networks.

Malaysia’s Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) earned the sympathy of election reform advocates, Cambodia’s labor unrest inspired solidarity action for striking garment workers, and the Million People March in the Philippines exposed the continuing corruption in that country. They were clearly political protests, but they were never dismissed as anti-democratic or elitist. They were also clearly linked to citizen campaigns for good governance, economic reform, and election modernization.

In Thailand, the protests articulated legitimate populist issues like corruption, but many people were concerned about the protesters decision to reject the electoral process. Many couldn’t understand why the protesters demanded the appointment of an unelected body to govern the country. Perhaps anti-government protesters could have pushed for greater voting reforms, but instead they allowed their spokespersons to make inflammatory statements, for instance claiming that Thailand is not ready for Western-style democracy, or that voters can’t be trusted because the majority are incapable of making intelligent decisions.

The protesters had a valid point about the influence of money politics in elections, but instead of focusing exclusively on the Shinawatra family, they could also have held other elitist parties accountable, including members of the opposition.

For these reasons, Thailand’s anti-government protest campaign was never really recognized by the international community as an Arab Spring-inspired movement.

However, the coup and the opposition it has sparked could now revive world interest in a Thai democracy movement.

Everyone can now get together behind the idea of restoring democracy by calling for an end to the military rule. Thais from various political backgrounds can agree on the need to protect free speech. They can demand the release of detained leaders, academics, journalists, and protestors. They can take their cue from the international community, which has expressed disappointment over the declaration of martial law and the subsequent coup itself.

After months of protesting against a government perceived as corrupt, perhaps Thais can reclaim the streets once more – this time to fight for democracy. If they do, then maybe this time around their voices will be amplified by people around the world.

Thailand’s Coup Will Worsen Political Crisis

First published by The Diplomat

Two days after declaring martial law, the Royal Thai Army has launched a coup in a bid to end the violent conflict between government supporters and opposition forces.

Historians may debate whether to consider the imposition of martial law as the start of the real coup, although some have already called it a soft or disguised coup. For now, the essential question is whether it will succeed in solving the country’s political crisis.

Based on Thailand’s history of coups over the past century, there is little reason to suggest the current military intervention will restore political stability. It is possible that Thailand’s deep political divisions can partially be attributed to the 2006 coup, which led to the ouster of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

When the army announced the suspension of the 2007 Constitution (excluding provisions concerning the monarchy), several Thai analysts noted it was the army that drafted the document. Perhaps it will initiate the drafting of a new constitution to again this time reform the country’s political system. But what if the envisioned reforms don’t materialize?

Understandably, there are many Thais who have already grown weary of the incessant political fighting in recent years. Many have also become cynical toward the electoral process, which has been discredited because of the money involved. Perhaps for these reasons, among others, some frustrated Thais favor intervention by the military to restore the country’s confidence in its political system.

But Thailand’s political impasse can partially be laid at the army’s feet. Through the 12 successful coups it has staged since 1932, the army has had several opportunities to prove that it can be the key to stabilizing Thai politics. This has yet to happen, so why repeat the process over and over?

Some Bangkok residents may have felt relieved to see their streets clear of anti-government protesters, or government supporters threatening to launch political action. The police were unable to disperse the protesters over the past six months, yet the army did so within the last two days.

As a result, the army imposed a nighttime curfew, banned public gathering of five or more people, and closed down TV and radio stations. When martial law was declared, free speech was threatened. The army deployed soldiers to control the newsrooms and offices of media stations, and attempted to censor social media.

The protesters have gone home, but the army is now in control of the government. Before the coup, there were reports that elections would be conducted after substantial reforms were undertaken over the next two years. After the coup, election chatter was replaced by news of the army chief becoming the country’s de facto prime minister.

Even as Thailand’s neighbor Myanmar formally shuns direct military rule in favor of a shift toward a parliamentary democracy, Thailand seems to be regressing.

Many Thais claimed they were not afraid to see soldiers patrolling key intersections in Bangkok, the country’s capital. Some of them even snapped photos of themselves with these soldiers. Take away these happy snaps, however, and what is left is the image of an old guard seeking to silence dissent and take power.

Thailand’s democracy is imperfect, but it is not beyond redemption. With its coup, the military has made it more difficult to fix the problems that challenge Thai society.

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