Updated: Rumors of a military coup are exaggerated

6 06 2012

A few days ago there were strong rumors, in both red shirt and yellow shirt camps, that a coup was possible.

The Bangkok Post assesses these rumors and suggests that “there appears nothing to compel the military leader to resort to such drastic action, at least for the time being.” Why?

It is claimed that one reason is that the brief People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) activism “has irritated army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, prompting him to rule out the possibility of another coup.” He is said to have been “bothered [by]… the pressure piled on him by the calls from some demonstrators for the military to resolve political conflicts by staging a coup.” None of that sounds like a reason for not running a coup for the Army will always have its own perspective and timetable.

The Post adds that the “rumours [of a coup] came as Gen Prayuth held a meeting with the heads of the army units, all military generals, on the morning of June 1, and then chaired another meeting with military colonels in the same afternoon.” Further, “[t]he same day, an order to transfer 67 colonels was circulated among the army, reminding many of the transfer of 179 colonels prior to the 2006 coup.”

The Post also observes that “Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat decided to cut short his trip to attend the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual international security forum in Singapore, and returned to Thailand on June 1, two days ahead of schedule.”

Prayuth’s ongoing exercise in strengthening the position of ultra-royalist commanders continues as the military splits and army-on-army killing in 2010 spooked him. If the meetings and transfers were routine, Sukumpol should not have been so obviously spooked.

It seems Sukumpol had to call Prayuth to find out about the meetings, so he seems uninformed on important military events. Clearly the government is out of the military loop, and that is a sure sign of antagonism and more.

Another reason for saying there won’t be a coup has to do with public statements by military brass: “Red shirt TV channels speculated that Supreme Commander Gen Thanasak Patimaprakorn, not Gen Prayuth, would lead a new coup. Gen Thanasak later strongly denied this.” Further, “Gen Prayuth thinks the military should remain neutral when it comes to politics.”

Of course, as everyone knows, military leaders virtually always deny coup rumors until the tanks roll. Readers can go back to the period before the 2006 coup and find similar denials. And, Prayuth’s words about neutrality are meaningless as his actions and speech in the recent past make this claim an outright untruth.

A third reason is that: “[i]n the past, classic factors that have driven the military to stage coups were political interference, such as politically motivated reshuffles or an attempt to remove the army chief from his post.” That’s only partly true, for there have been many other factors motivating coups. PPT believes Prayuth when he says that his Army will never countenance an action he sees as against the monarchy. The 2006 coup was in part about the monarchy and the palace was deeply involved.

The debates and action this week have been about the monarchy, so there is reason to believe that the Army boss was aroused and there is no reason to think that he and other commanders weren’t in the PADocrat loop this past week. Being in the loop does not mean a coup was planned, but it was one element in piling pressure on the elected government.

Indeed, the Post notes that coup rumors “have shaken the government’s confidence, and [Prime Minister] Ms Yingluck [Shinawatra]’s assertions that she was capable of reconciling with Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda and Gen Prayuth do not seem so convincing any more.”

In the end, the Post story has as many reasons for discounting coup planning as it does for believing that the military is scheming.

It is at this point that PPT thinks speculation of a military coup is rather too specific. One thing the military has learned is that its will can be done without the tanks having to roll. We saw that ever so clearly in the last half of 2008.

Red shirt leader Korkaew Pikulthong is also quoted in the Post story. His claim is that the “Democrat Party and PAD had been in contact with senior officers to carry out a plot to topple the government.” Korkaew believes that:

[i]f the parliament debates a proposed constitution amendment bill, defying a Constitution Court order to suspend proceedings on the issue, the Democrats will ask the court to remove those MPs and senators who voted to pass the bill and seek the dissolution of the Pheu Thai Party.

This claim seems to carry some weight. For a start, it is in line with 2008 strategy. It is also based in an assessment of military fear that anything that involves the monarchy can eventually destroy the royalist state. And finally, it is about judicial coup backed by the monarchy rather than a tank-rolling and potentially bloody coup of the “traditional” kind.

In the end, rumors of a military coup are exaggerated, but rumors of a (judicial) coup seem entirely plausible. Indeed, reports of royalist legal experts backing the Constitutional Court give the rumor considerable credence.

Update: Readers will find the stories in the Wall Street Journal and at Bloomberg of interest as they discuss the judicial coup. One thing that is not asked to loudly anywhere, but worth throwing in the mix is related to the palace. Does the king’s recent appearance have any connection to the current crisis. Who interpreted or heard a message in his and the queen’s visit to the provinces? Just another coincidence?



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