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Thai coup leader tightens grip
Asia Times - May 23, 2014
Most of the at least 150 politicians, protest leaders and former security officials told to report to the military are aligned to her self-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Army commander Prayuth and the country's powerful military overthrew the elected caretaker administration of Prime Minister Niwattamrong Boonsongpaisan, who had succeeded Yingluck earlier this month, two days after invoking martial law. The brazen move will have wide-ranging implications for national stability and the future of democracy. As coup-makers consolidated their rights-curbing control on Friday, analysts and observers are weighing the potential for a backlash response.
While Prayuth insisted previously that a putsch would not resolve the long-running political crisis pitting supporters and detractors of former premier Thaksin, his heavy-handed intervention will likely bear out that prediction and accentuate already deep-seated divisions in Thai society.
Prayuth staged his coup at around 4:30 pm on Thursday after a meeting he called of opposed political groups, including leaders of the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest groups and their respective affiliated Democrat and Peua Thai political parties, failed to reach an agreement on the creation of a neutral interim government.
When acting Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri refused Prayuth's point blank request to dissolve the caretaker government and allow for the appointment of a neutral government, the army chief announced in response that he would seize power, according to local reports. Both sides' attending leaders were detained, transferred and held incommunicado at Bangkok's King's Guard First Infantry Division. It was unclear how many of them were still in detention when Asia Times Online went to press.
While Tuesday's invocation of martial law was widely viewed as a de facto coup, it wasn't altogether clear that the deployment of troops, censorship of media and containment of PDRC and UDD protest sites situated in the national capital were the advance maneuvers of a full-blown military takeover. Prayuth failed to consult Niwattamrong, Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn and Air Force Commander Air Chief Marshal Prachin Chantong before invoking martial law but didn't immediately topple the caretaker government.
It seems clear now, however, that Prayuth's call for negotiations on Wednesday and Thursday were a well-laid trap to apprehend elusive political actors and pave the way for the easy dismantlement of their leaderless protest sites by armed troops. Foreign mediators familiar with the situation said the army leader was briefed before the two meetings on how to handle such a complex multi-actor negotiation. The precision implementation of yesterday's coup, however, indicates it was planned well in advance of the broken meeting.
Many political analysts felt earlier that Prayuth and his royal-establishment backers including in the bureaucracy and courts would opt instead to oust Niwattamrong's caretaker government through more internationally palatable legal means, similar to the abuse of power charges that led to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's court-ordered ouster on May 7. Conservative senators announced after Tuesday's invocation of martial law that they were readying a new legal case aimed at toppling her remaining caretaker Cabinet ministers.
A known staunch royalist, Prayuth served previously in the elite 21st Infantry Division, also known as the Queen's Guard. He maintains close ties with retired senior members of the elite unit, including former Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army commander General Anupong Paochinda, two soldiers who maintain influence in royalist quarters.
Some analysts believe Prawit is the frontrunner to become prime minister in a junta-appointed government; if the Senate is tasked with the appointment the conservative-leaning body is expected to favor a "technocratic" line-up, potentially led by former Foreign and Finance Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. Any appointment will require the endorsement of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, who had not yet received coup-maker Prayuth as of late Friday afternoon.
Hard, not soft
Compared to General Sonthi Boonyaratklin's 2006 military coup, characterized as "smooth as silk" by some commentators for its soft measures in ousting Thaksin's elected caretaker government, Prayuth's putsch has packed a comparative punch through stronger troop mobilizations and curfews.
In the 2006 coup, only five of Thaksin's top allies and advisers were taken into military custody for interrogations. (Thaksin was at the time in New York for a United Nations meeting.) That led to criticism in certain hard-line military quarters, led most vocally by former spy chief and foreign minister Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri, that harder measures were required to uproot Thaksin's influence.
Prayuth, in comparison, summoned more than 150 key players in Thailand's political impasse, mostly known to be aligned with Thaksin, to report to the new ruling National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC) junta's First Infantry Division base. Many of the former army and police officials on the list are believed by certain security analysts and diplomats to have played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing and arming the UDD's militant wing that clashed fatally with troops under Prayuth's command on Bangkok's streets in April and May 2010. Most were banned from traveling outside of the country by the NPOMC earlier today.
With that signal sent to potential provocateurs, Prayuth and his junta co-leaders have apparently calculated that Thaksin and the UDD lack the capacity and will to mount a significantly destabilizing response to their putsch. That strategic assessment no doubt draws on recent tepid UDD mobilizations, some organized around the theme of protecting electoral democracy from the PDRC's often anti-democratic agenda, and others against perceived as biased independent agencies and courts that earlier threatened and eventually knocked Yingluck from power.
They will also have been emboldened by indications that recent Thaksin-influenced policies, including his push last October for amnesty legislation that would have absolved him of a criminal corruption conviction, but also freed Prayuth and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of liability for their roles in the 2010 crackdown on UDD protestors, have fragmented and diluted support for the so-called "Red Shirt" movement.
Yingluck's boondoggle rice price-support scheme, a populist measure that won her party votes at the 2011 polls, is now believed to have eroded grassroots support for both the UDD and Peua Thai party among a large number of indebted and unpaid farmers. The UDD's protest on the outskirts of Bangkok was suppressed with little resistance on Thursday; PDRC protestors voluntarily packed up their rolling six-month anti-government protest while greeting the coup as an anti-Thaksin victory.
Thaksin and his UDD supporters will be keen to show earlier rather than later that Prayuth's coup-makers have badly miscalculated their strength and numbers. How Thaksin's camp calibrates its mix of diplomacy and violence will be pivotal to future stability and level of military repression. With the military's martial law grip on Bangkok, any insurgent-type response is more likely to arise from less militarized areas in Thaksin's stronghold northern and northeastern provinces, similar perhaps to the hit-and-run style attacks employed by Muslim insurgents against government targets in the country's three southernmost provinces.
Some analysts interpreted the shadowy assaults on the PDRC as veiled warnings of a possible insurgent response to Yingluck's and now Niwattumrong's extra-constitutional ouster. The same analysts speculate that the military has attempted to pre-empt that threat by identifying and targeting known UDD hardliners; others interpreted last month's assassination of pro-UDD poet Mai Neung as a message that any UDD violence will beget similar violence. The military has made a public show of its apparent improved intelligence compared to 2010 by capturing military-grade arms allegedly linked to the UDD after invoking martial law. UDD leader Weng Tojirakarn denied any association with the seized weapons.
Thaksin's stronger hand will be played with the international community, where he already has cultivated several sympathetic audiences. Western countries, including the United States, have publicly voiced their displeasure with Prayuth's extra-legal coup and indicated punitive sanctions are forthcoming. Meanwhile, market reaction has been muted, with the SET index of Thai stocks closing down 0.66% on Friday and the baht also was little changed.
One foreign diplomat familiar with Thaksin's recent thinking believes he will aim to exploit Prayuth's overreach and lobby to win Western support for the creation of a government-in-exile, situated perhaps in neighboring Cambodia, where several UDD leaders took refuge after the 2010 military clampdown. Analysts believe that is in part why the junta today imposed restrictions on the movements of Thaksin's political allies and aligned politicians.
[Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.]