Six months after the coup and #DistrictThai is getting real

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It has been six months since the latest military coup in Thailand; human rights are under threat, the economy has weakened, and promises of an early return to democracy are fading. Yet while the military regime flounders to enforce happiness at gunpoint, there are alarming signs that not just few Thais are getting used to it.

On May 22 of this year, Thai military chiefs led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from the democratically elected government of Thailand’s first woman prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Bangkok had been gridlocked for months by protests. Fresh elections called by the Prime Minister were obstructed by the protestors who benefited from dubious judicial interventions that eventually led to the country’s 13th effected coup since 1932.

The junta dissolved both house of parliament and replaced the previous constitution with its own interim version; giving itself full legislative and executive power (and awarded its members a retrospective amnesty). The Thai judiciary meanwhile accepts the junta’s commands as laws. All of this has been done with the promise of peace, progress and national reform supervised by the regime.

Such promise of illusion is quite a déjà vu. Back in 2006, Yingluck’s brother and predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup. Thaksin implemented unprecedented economic and healthcare policies which were popular among the large rural population and parts of the emerging middle class, but the powerful traditional Bangkok-based elite felt threatened by his populist policies which they labelled as corrupt.

Thus the 2006 coup instigators initiated controversial and irregular investigations resulting in Thaksin being convicted in absentia on charges of corruption and abuse of power. The 2007 constitution was put in place under the military’s supervision to ensure that Thaksin could not return to power, but the majority of the population eventually supported his sister Yingluck who proceeded as promised to undo the work of the 2006 coup, but not soon enough before the regime struck first.

There is however one striking difference this time. On top of declaring martial law and promising national progress, the junta proclaimed that a “Return of Happiness” would now be strictly imposed. Politicians and activists were detained, free media constrained, and academics and other potential dissidents were summoned to account for their views to the men in uniform. Military courts try civilians.

The current junta does not tolerate any form of non-violent dissents; even students who stood peacefully in public and displayed the three-finger salute from the Hunger Games movies, now an expression of anti-coup sentiment, were taken to army camps or police stations, and threatened with criminal prosecutions. Similar to President Snow, General Prayuth is maintaining unity by ensuring that those Thais who resist will suffer.

The most worrying point, however, is the generational effect of the coup especially on the young Thais. Democracy is never instant; it takes generations. Bad choices are made so we learn to make better ones. But young Thais are growing accustomed to elected governments being removed from office, not by will or choice that is grounded on participatory experience, but by force that trumps indifference.

Worse, not only are choices taken away, they are to be officially forgotten. The name of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been removed from history textbooks; his record cannot be scrutinised by students. For different reasons, the junta cannot be criticized in the classroom - instead, pupils must recite a list of the junta’s ostensible values, which ironically include learning to understand democracy and respect for the law. Yingluck’s name is at risk too as she is facing a bizarre retroactive impeachment that might later trigger a lifelong ban from politics.

Critical thinking has become dangerous for the junta that is pushing for a new constitution that will serve as a transitional power sharing structure among the old and the new elites, but leaving little for the rest. Yet this vision is so unrealistic that even those who once backed his coup are rumoured to be planning another take-over.

The international community has not engaged with the situation. The European Union has cut off all official negotiations and high-level bilateral contacts. The US, however, went ahead with long-planned military exercises in partnership with the Thai junta, though ostensibly shifting the focus towards humanitarian operations.

China meanwhile takes a pragmatic approach; it knows that what happens in Thailand will shape the debate over western-style democracy in Myanmar, Cambodia and the wider region. The two Shinawatras were recently photographed in China with a panda cub, on a private visit escorted by a senior Chinese official, which indicates that Beijing expects them to remain important - a message that came across so clearly that the nervous junta had to tell Thai media not to report on former Thai leaders.

Thailand is important – a crucial anchor for economic growth, and potentially reference point for political transition in South-East Asia. Yet that growth has slumped, and that transition is going into reverse. The land of smiles can do better when its citizens can think and not forced to grin at gunpoint, and Thailand’s friends should say so very clearly and act accordingly.

Verapat Pariyawong is a Visiting Scholar at SOAS, University of London. He served as Special Counsel to the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand prior to the coup d’état of 2014.