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Bombs may set stage for another Thai coup

A fragile semi-democracy could be shattered by another military takeover as the generals get nervous

Graham McLachlan, Bangkok

Graham McLachlan, Bangkok

Published: August 05, 2019 05:09 AM GMT

Updated: August 05, 2019 05:18 AM GMT

Bombs may set stage for another Thai coup

A policeman runs a bomb detector through a bed of flowers at the scene of an explosion in Bangkok on Aug. 2. Thailand's generals were quick to blame former PM Thaksin Shinawatra for several blasts in the capital. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Several small bombs exploded in a series of blasts at busy spots in central Bangkok on Aug. 2, setting nerves on edge around the Thai capital. Four people were slightly injured.

No sooner did the bombs start going off than the army generals who remain in charge of Thailand despite recent parliamentary elections volunteered their opinions about who was responsible. They did so without offering any evidence to back up their claims. 

Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan and army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong all rushed to insinuate that fugitive prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his “red shirt” supporters were behind the bombs.

A telecommunications billionaire turned politician, Thaksin remains popular among large segments of the rural poor, especially in Thailand’s north and northeast where the red shirt movement is concentrated. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile after being unseated in a coup in 2006 and then charged with abuses of power.

The bombings on Aug. 2 were “similar to the events in 2006,” Apirat explained. “It’s the same group of people with the same ideologies that used to bomb police checkpoints.”

The army chief was referring to tit-for-tat acts of violence by pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin protesters that year, which the military then used as a pretext for staging a coup and unseating a democratically elected government ostensibly with the aim of “restoring peace.”

Apirat did not provide specifics but most people took him to mean Thaksin’s supporters.

Prayut himself minced no words. Shortly after the series of bombs, the army chief — who appointed himself prime minister after staging another coup in 2014 to unseat the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister — spoke ominously of lingering “red shirt influence.”

Within hours of these statements, police arrested two men from the country’s Muslim-majority southernmost region where a separatist insurgency has claimed thousands of lives over the years.

Police said the two had confessed to the bombings, which they allegedly carried out in revenge for the Thai army’s heavy-handed operations in the south.

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Police then announced that at least some of the bombs may have been set off by students from a Bangkok technical school as part of their violent turf war with students from another school.

Thai police are notoriously short on forensic skills and tend to rely entirely on confessions in solving crimes. Confessions can be coerced, however, so we may never know who set off the bombs on Aug. 2 and why.

It’s highly telling, however, that Prayut, Prawit and Apirat were more than happy to jump the gun before any facts were known and blame Thaksin, whose influence among the country’s poor they have portrayed as the root cause of all the ills in Thai politics.

Yet long before Thaksin appeared as a dominant force on the political scene with his first electoral juggernaut in 2000, Thailand’s army generals had been in the habit of staging coup after coup, usually to unseat a democratically government and install themselves in charge.

The pretexts have followed the same playbook. Pretext 1: charges of massive corruption levied against elected politicians, which the army said required their forceful removal from office. Pretext 2: violent street protests that required the army to step in and restore order.

Usually it has been a combination of the two.

Opaque new electoral rules

Both Thaksin and his sister were ousted after being accused of corruption and facing well-coordinated street protests against their governments.

After five years of rule under a military junta, Thailand has just transitioned back to parliamentary democracy of a sort with former junta chief Prayut now serving as a nominally elected prime minister.

Yet his governing coalition enjoys only a slight majority in the country’s raucous parliament. Even that majority has been thanks only to opaque new electoral rules and cases of dubious judicial legerdemain in the aftermath of nationwide elections held last March.

After five years as a dictator with unchecked powers who could suppress any dissent at will, Prayut seems to be chafing under the rules of parliamentary democracy. During the very first meeting of parliament last month, he stormed out in high dudgeon after a heated exchange with some opposition politicians. He later apologized, after a fashion.

Considering the long history of Thailand’s army meddling incessantly in politics, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that some powerful figures in the army might decide to put an end to electoral democracy once again.

That’s no mere conjecture. When recently asked by a journalist whether another coup might be in the offing, Apirat refused to rule it out.

If he does decide to stage a coup, Apirat will simply follow in the footsteps of his late father, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, who himself deposed an elected prime minister in 1991.

In almost any other country, an army chief hinting at the possibility of a military takeover would be regarded as treasonous. Not so in Thailand, where no coup maker has ever been held to account for overthrowing an elected government.

Far from it. Coup makers in Thailand invariably end up with lucrative cabinet positions and cushy business portfolios afterwards. Not only is it not dangerous to stage a coup in Thailand for army chiefs; doing so can be a rewarding career move. 

Mysterious bomb blasts or renewed public protests could once again serve as a pretext for the army to shut down parliament.  

However, yet another coup could be disastrous for Thailand despite the country’s endless cycle of military takeovers. Only a few years ago, Thailand was still seen as a shining beacon of relative freedom and progress in a politically benighted, war-torn and underdeveloped region.

No more. After half a decade of the army running matters, Thailand has been stagnating in an almost vegetative state socially, politically and economically.

The nation’s economy is among the worst performers in the region. Corruption has worsened considerably, with Thailand dropping 36 points last year over the year before in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. And the rule of law, never particularly robust, has been badly damaged after years of military rule.

Even under the current system of semi-democracy, Thailand could be facing bleak prospects, at least in the short term. Yet the current set-up of having parliamentary opposition to Prayut can be an important step toward restoring some accountability in Thai politics. 

A veneer of democracy is still better than none at all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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