BANGKOK – Thailand’s opposition protesters have appealed to the army to help topple the government, but chastened by the turmoil they unleashed with a 2006 coup the powerful generals are reluctant to seize power again, observers say.
The kingdom has been convulsed with periodic unrest since the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon whose political rise alarmed the nation’s elites who saw him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
The army held power for a year after the 2006 takeover, but Thaksin’s allies soon secured one of a series of thumping election victories that have frustrated their opponents, who now call for democracy to be replaced with an unelected “people’s council.”
Anti-government protesters vowing to rid the country of Thaksin’s polarizing influence have this week stormed the offices of his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and other symbols of state power, in unrest that has claimed several lives.
As the clashes threatened to get out of hand, the military sent hundreds of unarmed soldiers to support the police and facilitated a meeting between Yingluck and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on Sunday.
But apart from those measures the generals have so far avoided any public return to the political fray and army chief Gen. Prayut Chan-O-Cha said Tuesday the military would “let this problem be solved by politics.”
A senior military source with knowledge of the Sunday meeting said that the heads of the army, navy and air force refused to throw their support behind the premier.
“None of the three commanders took the government side,” said the official, on condition of anonymity. “They said if the government used force, they would stand next to the people.”
Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University said the generals, who see themselves as defenders of the monarchy, may feel compelled to exert order ahead of Thursday’s solemn celebrations for the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“Until very recently the army has stayed out of it and has been above the fray, but now I think they are being increasingly dragged into the conflict to break the deadlock. And that’s what the protest leaders want,” he said.
But he also said the army is aware that intervention “may just lead to more turmoil down the road.”
Thailand has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Observers say the army knows that another putsch risks further inflaming tensions.
“The coup of 2006 was a failure. Thaksin’s political forces are arguably stronger now than they would have been if that coup never took place,” said Andrew Walker, a professor at Australian National University.
The current unrest is the worst political violence since 2010, when more than 90 people were killed during pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” rallies that ended in a brutal army crackdown with soldiers firing live rounds as they stormed protest camps.
Walker said the Red Shirts proved they could again mass large numbers of supporters with their rally last weekend at a suburban sports stadium in Bangkok, which attracted tens of thousands of people.
“Their response to a coup would be vigorous, numerous and, in all likelihood, violent. The army won’t risk it,” he said.
The latest demonstrations have echoes of 2008, when the ultra-royalist “Yellow Shirts” stormed government headquarters trying to oust an elected Thaksin-allied government. Two premiers close to Thaksin were subsequently removed by judicial rulings.
Yingluck, who swept to power in elections held a year after the Red Shirts rallies, which paralyzed parts of Bangkok, had seemed to have earned at least grudging acceptance by the army.
But Paul Chambers, an academic at Chiang Mai University, said a reshuffle in October strengthened the royalist contingent in the top military ranks.
“I think the army — which has an anti-Thaksin leadership — is doing the same thing it did back in 2008. . . . That is, do nothing to help,” he said.
The recent political turmoil comes as the country braces for the eventual end of ailing King Bhumibol’s more than six-decade reign, and as the nation struggles with dramatic social change in which Thaksin acted as a catalyst.
Yingluck has insisted police would use a light touch and on Tuesday security forces offered no resistance to the protesters who had marched on the city police headquarters and government offices.
After fending them off with rubber bullets and tear gas in the days before, authorities removed barriers and razor wire and invited the whistle-blowing protesters inside, in a sudden mood of detente.