BANGKOK – The Thai junta justifies its coup last month and ongoing martial law as necessary to reconcile a deeply polarized society. However, evidence emerged this week that far from interceding reluctantly as he claims, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha conspired with the opposition to overthrow the elected government. Meanwhile, one of the ministers from the ousted administration announced the formation of a resistance movement. Rather than heal Thailand’s divisions, the junta has deepened them.
Suthep Thaugsuban led the illegal street protests that paralyzed Bangkok for much of the last six months and disrupted the February general election. This past weekend he boasted publicly that during that time he discussed with Gen. Prayuth how to drive then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. According to Mr. Suthep, Gen. Prayuth told him before the coup that “it’s now the duty of the army to take over the task.” The military has denied this.
Meanwhile, small-scale protests against the coup continue. On Sunday, eight people were arrested for symbolic acts such as eating a sandwich or reading George Orwell in public. Most are released without charge after seven days if they promise not to criticize the military, but the junta continues to hold an unknown number in undisclosed locations, in violation of international law. It is charging others, such as law professor Worachet Pakeerut.
On Tuesday, former Interior Minister Charupong Ruengsuwan announced the formation of the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy to fight the junta. Mr. Charupong is in hiding to avoid detention, while other opposition figures who continue to resist have fled abroad. He said the group would model itself on the Free Thais that fought against Japanese occupation during World War II, although he did not explicitly say that it would use violence.
This coup is already different from its immediate predecessors, which were brief interludes before the restoration of democracy. The junta has rolled out more repressive measures such as the use of military courts to try dissidents without the right of appeal. Meanwhile, social media has enabled critics of the military to spread their message and organize more quickly.
Gen. Prayuth says elections could be held in 14 months at the earliest. But before that can happen the military government insists the constitution must be rewritten and order restored. Supporters of the ousted government fear this means a system like Burma’s in which the military and aristocracy are guaranteed enough appointed seats in parliament to block legislation.
In the meantime, the military will create an interim constitution and an appointed “civilian” government made up partly of retired generals, as it has done in the past. If current trends continue, after the lifting of martial law this government will face escalating criticism and civil disobedience, if not outright violence. In Thailand’s north, where many of the ousted government’s supporters live, discontent is already at a boil.
The junta’s claim to be above politics was always a transparent fiction, but Mr. Suthep’s revelation should dispel all doubt. The generals can still avoid becoming international pariahs if they hold elections quickly under the existing constitution. Time is running out for Thailand to use democracy to bridge its political divides and avoid bloodshed.