On the surface, Tuesday’s military coup in Thailand seems to have had no fallout. At Government House, four-month-old Tuner’s parents bundled him into a soldier’s arms, for a photograph in front of a tank that had yellow ribbons and drying roses in its turret. The family from Suwannaphum, like the groups of giggling schoolgirls posing with soldiers, was unfazed by the end of democracy. As were Thai bourses, which reopened on Thursday to an initial 4.2 per cent plunge but recovered by the day’s end to register a drop of just 1.6 per cent.
At the same time, however, the Council for Democratic Reform, headed by army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, on Thursday banned political parties from holding meetings, barred the creation of new parties and placed restrictions on the media, in an announcement on Thai television that justified the restrictions in the name of maintaining stability.
And deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to a statement issued in London where he is now based, said he would work towards national reconciliation and would be taking a break from politics. Since the statement did not mention when Thaksin would return to Thailand, there was no indication of how the coup will play out in the medium-to-long term, if Thaksin decided to fight back against his opponents.
At the moment, there is a mix of apathy and euphoria, which gives the appearance of business as usual. “It is typically Thai,” said Indian ambassador Vivek Katju. “After every coup, they have returned immediately to normalcy.”
Ask Thais on a Bangkok street about the coup, and most will ask you if you want to see Thai boxing or have a massage.
Widhuda (25), a student at St John’s University who was standing outside Army House, where the military council held meetings all day, said she was “very happy: with how the army had conducted the operation. Like many others, she was displeased with the former PM’s corruption.
Thaksin, the “CEO PM”, is one of Thailand’s richest men, the first prime minister from the entrepreneurial class and also the first from the northern city of Chiang Mai. His opponents are the old elite; prime ministers were previously lawyers, civil servants or generals, who do not like his popularity. This is the root cause of the events leading to the coup.
Thais are happy that the coup took place without a confrontation between Thaksin and his opponents, says Phra Nakhon, a student at Rajamangala University. It may explain why a local poll showed support for the coup even in the countryside, despite the fact that Thaksin endeared himself in the provinces with free health insurance, debt suspensions for farmers and low-cost loans. A local Reuters reporter, who had been out in the countryside on Thursday, returned with news that though Thaksin remains the messiah for the poor, there was also support for the bloodless coup.
And Thaksin’s departure is not expected to hurt Thailand’s macroeconomics. According to a Goldman Sachs report on Thursday, rumours that Bank of Thailand Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula might be appointed interim prime minister would make the coup look “a deliberate political tactic to fast-track constitutional reform” and would be welcomed by the markets.
The military, as part of its road map to return to democracy a year from now, has said it will appoint an interim PM in two weeks, and that work on the new Constitution will begin after that.
Some papers are advising the government to fast track this process by using the 1997 Constitution as a draft for the new one.