Five years are enough to do lasting damage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am


Five years ago today, the Thai military staged a coup which overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Some Thais blamed Thaksin for triggering the crisis. But little did they know that the coup that was supposed to kill the 'Thaksin disease' was itself a disease that undermined Thai democracy.

It is crucial to look back on the past five years and examine the changes to the political landscape. First, the coup opened the door for the military to intervene in politics in the name of protecting national security and the dignity of the monarchy. Thai politics has become increasingly militarised, with the army constantly threatening to stage another coup should the political situation remain chaotic and precarious.

The appointment of the new army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, in October last year, has further deepened the military's political role. Prayuth has made numerous political statements, frequently appearing on television to intimidate his enemies. Less than four weeks before the election in July, he urged Thais not to vote for the Puea Thai party, describing it as replete with bad people.

Second, contrary to the conservatives' argument, the coup has weakened, not strengthened, the royal institution. For one thing, the royalists in the army and in the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy effectively politicised the monarchy for their own gain. Thus, consciously or otherwise, they have diminished the level of reverence of the monarchy. The misuse of the lese-majeste law as a political weapon has tainted the royal image.

Third, the coup gave birth to the red-shirt movement and it has grown to become a well-organised social movement designed to eradicate social injustice and double standards. The red shirts were responsible for the violent unrest in April-May last year as they virtually closed down Bangkok's main business district. The result of that unrest was heart-rending, with 91 people being killed and more than 2,000 injured.

Finally, in the post-coup period, Thai-Cambodian relations have hit rock-bottom. Thai royalists, with support from the military, have exploited issues to discredit Thaksin and his cronies. In many ways, war with Cambodia justified the role of the military in safeguarding national security. Cynically, a bad relationship with Cambodia might be in the interests of some players in Thai politics.

For Thailand, these past five years have done great damage to the nation's foundation. Unless those in high places realise that the political landscape has changed, and that they must learn to share their power, the Thai crisis, which has its roots in the 2006 coup, will not come to an end any time soon.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies