Christian Caryl

Can Thailand Move Beyond the Coup?

Thailand under military rule may look calm. But big changes are coming, whether the generals like it or not.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

On May 22, exactly six months ago, the military in Thailand launched a coup. The generals in Bangkok announced that they were putting an end to half a year of debilitating confrontation between the country’s two main political camps. The new junta repealed the old constitution, banned public assemblies, and imposed curbs on the press. It also briefly detained ex-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been deposed from her post just a few days earlier on charges of “abuse of power.”

Yingluck is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the man around whom all Thai political intrigue revolves. Reviled by the Bangkok elite, adored by millions of voters, the billionaire Shinawatra, who now lives in exile, inspires ferocious loyalty and equally ferocious contempt. His critics denounce him for corruption and demagoguery. His fans praise him for bringing public services to the long-neglected rural communities that account for the bulk of Thailand’s population.

In 2012, when Yingluck’s government was still in office, Verapat Pariyawong got a job as a legal adviser to one of her deputies. Now in his late twenties (he declines to say exactly how old he is), the Harvard-educated Verapat has already experienced more political drama than most people twice his age. His work in government, and his subsequent status as a high-profile commentator, exposed him fully to the rough-and-tumble of Thai politics at a time of deepening polarization.

In October of last year, the Shinawatras’ foes launched a series of street protests that aimed to paralyze the capital until the Yingluck government fell. Verapat waded into the fray: “I was out there, on TV on radio, writing articles, arguing against the undemocratic overthrow of the government” — which had, after all, come to power by winning a solid majority of the votes in a democratic election. Many of his friends and associates sympathized with the protestors and chided him for working for a government despised by the elites. At one point in February, unknown assailants fired gunshots at his house; the same thing happened again on the day of the coup. (Closed-circuit TV footage of that second incident can be seen here.)

Verapat had already accepted several speaking engagements in the United Kingdom before the military takeover, and in the days that followed he left the country. On May 28, as he was stepping off a train in Oxford, his mobile phone lit up. Friends were calling to tell him that, back home in Bangkok, the military had interrupted regular TV programming to issue a notice ordering him to report to the authorities, a likely prelude to his arrest.

Verapat elected to stay where he was, although he did have an illuminating phone conversation with representatives of the military back in Bangkok. When he told them that he was, as he puts it, “open to constructive dialogue but not coercion,” one of the generals responded that he should return home for some “attitude adjustment” — the junta’s now-notorious euphemism for its detention of critics.

“For the past six months my life has been rather adventurous,” he says with a smile. He’s spent the time since the coup giving lectures about the situation in Thailand and writing about the need for fundamental reform of Thailand’s political culture — and no, he hasn’t gone back. The support of his family has been crucial to keeping him going, he adds.

Given the internecine quality of Thailand’s current political situation, though, it comes as little surprise that some of the people he knows have ended up on the opposite side of the barricades. His university law teacher is now helping the junta to draft a new constitution. (If it’s adopted, it will be the country’s 19th in 80 years.) Verapat says that his ex-professor believes that the Yingluck government was “corrupt and evil,” and correspondingly regards helping the military regime as a civic duty. Verapat has a simple response: “How can you be sure that the military regime is less corrupt?” Many of Thailand’s generals, he notes, are millionaires, beneficiaries of the privileges of military rank. “If ordinary governments with checks and balances can be corrupt, then how do we expect a military regime that has no checks or balances to be less corrupt?”

All of which raises the question: How can Thailand move beyond the current impasse? The junta has pledged to implement a wide-ranging program of economic reform before it will allow for a return to elections; both the United States and the European Union have rejected the so-called “reform roadmap,” calling for the restoration of democracy. That seems reasonable enough: Thailand’s democratic institutions have many decades of experience behind them, though they’re still far from perfect. But General Prayuth shows shows little indication to relinquish power anytime soon — dramatized by his harsh response, just a few days ago, to some brave, Hunger Games-style protestors.

The reality is that neither the Bangkok elite nor the Shinawatra clan can predict what will happen next. The big wild card in everything that’s happening in Thailand today is the fate of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose 68-year reign makes him the world’s longest serving head of state. He is widely revered by Thais, not least because he’s made himself into the crucial counterweight in a political system that often seems to be seesawing between extremes. But he’s in poor health, and few Thais seem to believe that his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, can infuse the monarchy with the same authority as his larger-than-life patriarch. (Just to add to the uncertainty, Thaksin, whose access to the throne has been blocked by his traditionalist enemies, is working hard to curry favor with the prince.)

And so, despite the outward appearance of stasis, there’s a sense of major change around the corner. Analysts say that there are Thais on both sides of the divide — disillusioned by the self-interested conservatism of the old guard as well as the sometimes disconcerting populism of the Thaksin clan — who are yearning for new approaches.

For his part, Verapat hopes that his compatriots will find a way to transcend the current polarization — and he hopes that he can be a part of it. “We really need to try something new,” he says. “We need to stop relying on old faces. We need a new generation — a revolution by the young, not young by age but by mentality.” He admits that it’s likely to be a long and messy process. “Democracy,” he says, “is never instant; it takes generations.” Let’s hope that Thailand will soon have the chance to get back to work on perfecting itself.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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