Is Thailand's post-coup 'phoney war' over?

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Image source, EPA
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Thailand is still under martial law following the coup last May

The past eight months in Thailand have been something like a phoney war.

For all the talk of violence after the coup, of a "red-shirt" uprising, nothing of the sort has happened. Red-shirt leaders were rounded up in the first days of the coup but then quietly released, having signed promises not to engage in politics.

They have stuck to those promises. A few weapons stashes have been displayed by the military, a few alleged ringleaders of armed groups arrested, but nothing else.

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was also quickly released and allowed to travel abroad.

It seemed that a deal had been done; supporters of the ousted government would not disrupt the efforts of coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha to impose order on the country. In return, they were left in peace, quietly maintaining their networks of supporters in preparation for a return to democratic politics, when they expected their party to succeed at the ballot box, as it has for the past 14 years.

Shifting electoral maths

That deal must now be presumed to be off. The National Legislative Assembly's vote to impeach Ms Yingluck and impose a five-year ban from politics, along with a criminal charge that carries a 10-year jail sentence, presents her with the bleak prospect of ending up in exile like her brother Thaksin.

This would deprive her party of a proven vote-winner, and her brother, who is still the party's main funder, of a trusted lieutenant.

The red-shirts also know that the military is drafting a new constitution which will at the very least shift the electoral arithmetic in favour of other parties, and enhance the powers of staunchly anti-Shinawatra bodies like the Constitutional Court and Anti-Corruption Commission. Under these conditions, a repeat of their last four election victories will be much harder, if not impossible.

Image source, AFP
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Ms Shinawatra was elected prime minister in July 2011

The argument put by the military, that it was not involved in the impeachment verdict, holds little water.

As does the claim that it was only about corruption in Ms Yingluck's rice subsidy scheme.

The NLA is a rubber-stamp parliament whose 220 members were selected with military approval; indeed half of them are serving or former military officers. Its verdict, so decisively against Ms Yingluck, must have had General Prayuth's prior consent.

Yes, the rice scheme proved to be very expensive and there were worrying indications of corruption. But no proper inquiry has yet been conducted into abuses; no-one has yet been tried or convicted. Those investigations of the scheme that have published findings have been conducted by bodies now hopelessly tarnished in the eyes of many Thais by their perceived partisan stance.

Not about corruption

Opponents of the Shinawatra family often state that their governments were the most corrupt Thailand has ever had. This is impossible to measure in a country which has long been plagued by corruption at every level of officialdom, and where the criminal justice system barely functions.

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Eight months after the coup, General Prayuth is floundering

There are plenty of examples of large-scale corruption in non-Shinawatra governments. Some of the key players in today's military government are tainted by it.

So if Ms Yingluck's impeachment was not about corruption, why did it happen?

Those on the yellow-shirt side who drove the protest campaign against her last year were open about their wish to see the Shinawatras and their party purged from politics. Some of them now sit in the NLA.

But the military took a more nuanced view, presenting itself as a mediator between the two sides. Regional army commanders even held reconciliation meetings between the two sides, and ran a "Return Happiness To The People" campaign, complete with singing soldiers and dancing girls.

Eight months on, though, General Prayuth is floundering. The economy, which he promised to revive, taking over key positions like chairing the Board of Investment, is barely growing. There have been signs, too, of infighting between different military factions. The debates over the new constitution have so far been heated and inconclusive.


The government has become vulnerable to criticism, not from the red-shirt side, which has kept quiet, but from the yellow-shirt side, which had initially cheered the coup but now fears being excluded from the redesign of the country's political institutions.

There has been sniping from politicians and commentators on the yellow side about the military's lacklustre performance, but also about the rumours of a possible deal between the military and Thaksin Shinawatra.

This sniping may have been encouraged by powerful figures close to the royalist establishment. So it is likely that General Prayuth has decided to throw his lot in with them, to get them off his back.

Yingluck Shinawatra, who has said little in public since the coup, came out angrily against her impeachment, denouncing what she called a move to destroy democracy and the rule of law in Thailand.

Beyond that, though, it is not clear what she will do. Her lawyer is already talking about negotiating an eventual amnesty from the military. That suggests she will not offer herself as a political martyr for her movement.

So far there are few signs of anyone on the red side protesting against Ms Yingluck's impeachment.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Less than half of the 32-member cabinet are from the military, but they hold key positions

Martial law is still in place, and the military will move swiftly to put down any shows of defiance. But the movement's leaders will have to decide what their strategy should be from now - whether to rally round Yingluck, following her family's lead, or whether to chart a new course.

The red-shirt movement has evolved a great deal since its beginnings in 2008. It is made up of hundreds of local networks, in the red heartlands of the north and north-east, but also in poorer districts of the capital Bangkok.

Through them, many Thais in these areas have become intensely interested in politics for the first time, with a strong sense of what elections and central governments can deliver for them.

Many of their activists are not particularly loyal to the Shinawatra family, and some believe the movement needs to cut its dependence on them. There are some radicals in the movement who advocate a wholesale shake-up of Thailand's traditional hierarchy.

The times are not conducive to political experiments, under a fumbling, conservative military government primarily concerned with managing a sensitive royal succession. But lying low, and simply waiting to win the next election, is no longer a viable strategy.

Thailand's troubles

  • September 2006: Army ousts Thaksin Shinawatra
  • December 2007: Pro-Thaksin party wins election
  • August 2008: Mr Thaksin flees Thailand
  • December 2008: Huge anti-Thaksin protests; court bans ruling party; Democrat's Abhisit Vejjajiva comes to power
  • March-May 2010: Huge pro-Thaksin protests; dozens killed in army crackdown
  • July 2011: Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Mr Thaksin, elected PM
  • November 2013: Anti-government protests begin
  • May 2014: Ms Yingluck removed from office; military launches coup
  • August 2014: Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha named PM by legislature hand-picked by military.

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