A coup by any other name

It’s official. Thailand has now had its second military coup in eight years, and the 12th since abandoning the absolute monarchy in 1932. Last week’s takeover has been a “creeping coup,” an almost reluctant move by a military leadership fed up with a democratic process that seems unable to govern or bring stability to Thailand.

That frustration is understandable, but the inclination should have been resisted: A military government will not resolve Thailand’s problems. The best thing Gen. Prayuth Chan-choa, the prime mover behind the coup and the head of the new National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, can do is to produce a civilian government, one that represents the entire country, and hand power to them.

Prayuth made his move last week, when he called in leaders from the government and the opposition to have them explain progress they had made on “their homework”: resolving the standoff that had paralyzed Thailand’s political system and threatened to descend into violence and civil war.

Two hours later, after it was clear that no progress had been made, soldiers sealed that meeting room and Prayuth declared martial law. In a video to the country, he explained: “What I’m doing today is in the interest of security. If this steps over anyone, then I have to apologize. I insist that I will honor every side, always.”

His politeness and regret do not mask the enormity of his action. The military has again booted out Thailand’s elected leaders, suspended democracy and imposed its will. Slowly the grip has tightened. The military junta set up the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council to rule.

Dozens of leaders have been imprisoned: Ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra and the head of the opposition Suthep Thaugsuban have been released from military custody, although Yingluck remains “under military supervision.” The Senate, Parliament’s upper house, has been dissolved, and military officials are in charge of government offices.

As many as 155 politicians and activists have been forbidden to leave the country, and opinion leaders — including Japan Times contributor Pavin Chachavalpongpun — and activists have been summoned to report to the new governing body. Pavin, who teaches at Kyoto University, has refused to turn himself in.

Social media are being monitored and some foreign websites blocked. Prayuth has warned protesters to get in line and threatened the use of force if they do not.

Sadly Thailand’s king, the revered head of state, has reportedly given his backing to the new government.

Military intervention has not ended the protests. Some demonstrators have clashed with the police; many of them are reported to be students, not just the usual backers of the ousted Shinawatra government.

In other words, there is the danger that the military has split the opposition into those who approve of the military’s intervention if it ends the Shinawatra regime and those who put democratic processes above particular results.

Prayuth will soon discover that staying in power means resorting to force and thus bloodying the military. This should be a disturbing prospect, not only because an institution devoted to serving the national interest should never turn its guns against the people, but also because the military has just recovered some of the legitimacy it lost after its last intervention. What’s worse is that it will likely have no effect.

As in 2006, when then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a coup, the military wrote a new constitution — the one that was discarded last week. But its political backers, the opponents of Shinawatra, lost the next election and every election since.

The problem in Thailand is not Shinawatra. It is what he stands for: a newly empowered population that demands a say in how the country is run. Rather than honor that demand, as any democracy worthy of the name should, the entrenched interests in Thailand have fought back, using control of instruments of power and authority, most notably the courts, to undermine the Shinawatra governments.

The result is mounting frustration on both sides, as popularly elected governments fall and the opposition fails to seize and hold power.

A reluctant coup is no less a coup. Prayuth needs to get out of government and hand power back to civilians. The signs, however, are that he is settling in for a long stay. Originally scheduled to retire in October, the general now says he is ready to stay on if the situation is not resolved by then. Friends of Thailand should work to convince him to leave.

The Japanese government has called the coup an “extremely regrettable situation” and “strongly requests that a democratic political system be swiftly restored.”

Words alone are unlikely to do the job. Suspensions of aid, primarily in the form of military contacts, are already underway by the United States. That too will prove insufficient.

Ultimately the answer lies in Thailand’s political class. They must acknowledge the changes that have taken place in their country. Longtime elites must be prepared to share power with the poor and the rural Thais who have long provided the sweat equity of Thailand’s economic successes while enjoying a disproportionately small share of the rewards.

The Shinawatras must compromise, too. They — like the opposition — must renounce the zero-sum politics that they have practiced to perfection and work with long-standing power holders to forge a process that apportions power and wealth to all Thais more fairly.

If this coup jump-starts that process, then some good may come of last week’s “reluctant intervention.” If not, the violence will only intensify over time.