BANGKOK – The U.S. Department of State under Presidient Obama offered muted criticism of Thailand’s military coup last May—no doubt because the country is designated a “major non-NATO ally” and the coup plotters promised to restore democracy quickly. But the junta’s decision last month to abandon political reconciliation and impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for alleged corruption has prompted the Obama administration to speak up.
According to the the Wall Street Journal, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, the most senior U.S. official to visit Thailand since last May’s coup, used a speech at Thailand’s most prestigious university last week to call for an end to martial law and restrictions on free speech and assembly. With classic diplomatic understatement he warned that “the international community is left with the impression that [the prosecution of Ms. Yingluck] could be politically driven.” The U.S. has also scaled back the annual “Cobra Gold” joint military exercise.
Thailand’s Military junta responded with outrage, while the pro-government media whipped up a frenzy of anti-American anger at this supposed interference in Thailand’s internal affairs. If that accusation has a Chinese ring, it is no coincidence: Beijing has seized the opportunity to cozy up to the junta. Dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha visited Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping on Dec. 23. While the U.S. Embassy fields complaints and protests, Chinese companies sign contracts to build railways.
Meanwhile, on Sunday night two small improvised bombs exploded outside Bangkok’s Paragon shopping mall, injuring two people. Nobody has claimed responsibility and the Army has denied any involvement, however the incident is reminiscent of a 2010 episode in which largely peaceful antigovernment protests were disrupted by mysterious men firing military weapons. These so-called “black shirts” were never caught, and their activities provided a justification for the military to clear the streets at the cost of about 100 lives.
In December, a former Prime Minister and Army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh warned of the possibility that a faction of the military could attempt a counter-coup. That remains unlikely, but reports of political divisions within the Army have filtered out steadily since the last coup in 2006. That may have helped push the junta to become more hard-line.
One sign of stress on the junta is the erratic behavior of Gen. Prayuth, who slammed the table with his hand at a recent press conference, used some salty language and threatened journalists. He complains when Thais fail to follow his directives but also bridles at the idea he is forcing anyone to do anything. Officially Thais are happy with the new regime, but in reality anger continues to build in the populous northeast, stronghold of Ms. Yingluck. The authorities have tightened controls on the media and called in more opposition figures for “attitude readjustment,” a euphemism for detention.
This hasn’t stopped public discussion of the contradictions underlying military rule. Ms. Yingluck is accused of corruption for a massive effort to boost the incomes of rice farmers and could face 10 years in prison. While undoubtedly bad policy, if the rice program constitutes vote-buying as the junta alleges, most of the world’s politicians deserve to be locked up. That includes the present government, which has created similar programs to boost its own popularity.
The junta has also invited derision by inventing its own lexicon, in which military rule is “Thai-style democracy.” Deputy Foreign Minister Don Paramatwinai chided Mr. Russel last week for using the word “coup.” “I insist that the military takeover in Thailand is not a coup, theoretically speaking,” he said. “It was in fact a revolution to install stability.”
Whether or not the generals believe their own propaganda, they continue to close avenues to compromise and a return to democracy. As Thailand’s friend and ally, the U.S. has a duty to warn that a show trial and imprisonment of Ms. Yingluck would undermine stability. As Prayuth flounders, investment has slowed and the economy has stagnated.
The country’s elite may not like the populism that Ms. Yingluck represents, but she remains popular with the majority of the population. The coup plotters justified their illegal overturning of the constitution as necessary for reconciliation, but they have now revealed it to be another naked grab for power.