“It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”
In the old Hollywood movies, that’s the line that one of the intrepid explorers utters just before all hell breaks loose in the jungle. But the army chiefs are probably saying it in Thailand, too.
It’s just over a month since the Thai army overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and took control of the country. The elected government, which had faced months of street protests by an anti-democratic opposition movement that sometimes used violence, knew the coup was coming. Indeed, the demonstrations were explicitly intended to cause a military coup.
Yet the government’s supporters have remained silent. Curious.
Officially, the army puts this down to popular support for the coup. “Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since May 22 there is happiness,” said General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the army chief who now rules the country.
And his soldiers have been doing their best to prove it, at least in Bangkok, organizing street parties that offer free food and drink, music and dancing, even free haircuts and a petting zoo.
Some Thais clearly are happy about the military coup: they take selfies of themselves with soldiers in riot gear in front of big banners that say happiness. But their clothes suggest that they belong to the prosperous middle class of Bangkok whose constant anti-government demos were intended to trigger the coup, so why shouldn’t they be happy?
Others, generally less well dressed, are a lot less happy. In a striking example of cultural crossover, some of them make the three-fingered salute that is used as a gesture of defiance by the oppressed population in the Hunger Games films when they pass soldiers in the street (although you can get arrested for doing that).
But where are the mass protests that everybody expected when the long-awaited coup finally happened?
The Thai army has some dozen coups to its discredit, but the country has been democratic most of the time since the mid-1980s. Politics nevertheless remained largely a game played out between rival sections of the Bangkok elite until the 2001 election, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made telecommunications billionaire from humble origins, won a landslide victory.
Thaksin’s government openly favoured the downtrodden majority: the mass of poor farmers in the densely populated north and east of the country, and their children who had migrated to the factories of Bangkok. His welfare policies and cheap government loans began to transform their lives—but they also aroused the bitter opposition of better-off people in Bangkok and the south.
The army overthrew Thaksin in 2006, and he has lived in exile ever since. Every time the generals handed power back to the civilians, however, they voted in another government loyal to Thaksin: most recently, to one led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister after the 2011 election.
By then, the conservative parties had concluded that they could never win a free election—so they decided on “reform” instead.
The street protests that began last November were led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which demanded the resignation of Yingluck’s government. The PDRC said it would also disrupt any new elections until a committee of “good people” (chosen by the protesters and their friends at court) reformed the constitution to stop poor or badly educated people from voting. Only then could the right people finally win a “free” election.
That’s still the plan, and the army seems to be fully committed to it: the junta leader, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, says there will be no new elections for up to two years, by which time they will be conducted under a new, “reformed” constitution. So why have the “red shirts” (as the mostly poor supporters of the Shinawatras are known) not taken mass action against the coup, as most observers expected they would? Why is it so quiet out there?
One plausible answer is that the leaders of the “red shirts”, hoping to avoid a civil war, are waiting for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to die. The 86-year-old king generally sympathizes with the “yellow shirts” (as the coup’s civilian supporters are known), but he is in poor health. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was close to Thaksin Shinawatra when he was prime minister, and if he succeeds to the throne the whole crisis might be resolved peacefully
But Bhumibol might linger on for years, or the “yellow shirts” might even try to break the rules of succession and put Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (who favours them) on the throne instead.
The disenfranchised majority won’t stay quiet forever. What is lurking silently out there in the darkness is a civil war.