Deputy Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, lectured foreign journalists about their reports critical of the army takeover, accusing them of not understanding the Thai mindset. “Thais have a different way of thinking; they are brought up differently,” he said.
Over the years I have heard this kind of excuse used many times in many places - Westerners do not understand us; the situation is different here; pure democracy simply doesn’t work; it has to be ‘guided’ – all too often at the point of a gun.
I don’t buy the “different” argument. A blow over the head with a baton hurts just as much in Bangkok as in Beijing or Brisbane. I suspect a good number of Thais are just as opposed to being told what they can say or do by people in uniform they don’t know and haven’t had a say in appointing, as the average Australian on the streets of Sydney.
In Thailand the military’s trump card is that Army Commander-in-Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha visited King Bhumibol Adulyadej and received his endorsement for the coup. The King, a constitutional monarch, nevertheless has great moral authority and is revered by most of the population. His picture can be seen all over Bangkok, from huge posters on the side of buildings to little shrines kept by street sellers.
But the picture, showing a man in vigorous middle age, is 40 years old. The King is 86, frail, reportedly has a weak heart and is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This may not affect his mental facilities, but I would suggest that when an octogenarian in ill-health is confronted by the country’s most senior military figure, putting only his side of the argument for a coup that is a fait accompli anyway, then the General might find it easy to get the answer he wants.
In any case we will never know for certain what passed between them. The official recording of the ‘audience’ shows only the General kneeling before a picture of the King – the same picture that is the standard representation of the monarch throughout the country.
It now seems the military is settling in for a long period of rule. Questions about an eventual return to democracy are deflected, international demands for its immediate restoration ignored.
Seizing power in Thailand is easy – the military has done it many times before - governing a stumbling economy where gross domestic product is declining, tourists are staying away in droves and recession is looming, is going to be a far more difficult task.
General Prayuth is gathering around him the usual suspects as advisers, mostly veterans of the 2006 overthrow of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which is really where this current crisis began.
They are all staunch royalists, united in their hatred of Thaksin. Whether that will be sufficient to bring stability and good governance to South East Asia’s second-largest economy remains to be seen.