On Thursday, May 22, I went to a wat (temple/monastery) in Eastern Bangkok to interview a monk. I had been to the wat a few times, trying to catch a monk sitting around bored, and open to chatting with a nosy foreigner. This is a strategy that I have been using on and off for the last few months. It makes the encounter seem a bit more spontaneous and more likely that a monk will speak freely about his thoughts on politics and whatever possible role he might have. However, I had reached the end of my patience with this particular wat. Martial law had been declared two days before, and I wanted to speak with a monk I had never spoken to about this. I went up to the samnak-gaan wat (ie the office) and explained that I was a researcher and would like to speak to a monk about the roles of Thai monks in society. The man working in the office said sure, and then he thought for a long time about who to get. He disappeared, coming back about fifteen minutes later with the only monk he could find. The monk seemed a bit embarrassed and a bit reluctant to talk, as if he had been coerced into talking to the foreigner (not impossible). However, he quickly warmed up, and we chatted for over an hour about his responsibilities, the place of the wat in the community, and his thoughts on martial law. In general he was not worried about the declaration. He said he thought this was probably a good thing because the protests which had been going on for six months had reached an impasse and martial law would calm things down and allow proper negotiations. About four hours later, General Prayuth, the head of the military got sick of these negotiations and decided to declare the caretaker government null and void, and ultimately the Senate and the Constitution as well. For the 14th time since 1932, Thailand had been subject to a military coup.
In very broad terms, the coup was the latest shift in a decade long conflict over the control of Thai society. The details are beyond the scope of a blog post (good reporting is provided by Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, and smart, clear op-ed pieces by both Michael Montesano and Duncan McCargo, also in the Times), but in very broad terms, this is a conflict over the relative influence of different stakeholders in Thailand as a democracy. It has often been cast in binary terms between the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts,” with the former being associated with rural folk, particularly farmers of the North and Northeast, and the latter being associated with royalists, and middle and professional classes. The “red shirts” want to privilege electoral politics, while the “yellow shirts” have wanted to privilege the centrality of the monarchy. I am trying to use careful language here because most the red shirts also “love the king” and most yellow shirts also want electoral democracy (though their leaders should probably be seen as anti-democratic). The shirt colors are short hand for broad coalitions, because these were the colors worn by the different groups in mass mobilizations that have taken place over the last decade.
The origins of this coup go back to the last coup in 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from office by the army, presumably because he was a threat to the king. Thaksin while a fairly greedy and thuggish politician is also the only prime minister to have made it through an entire term and be reelected in Thailand’s coup-happy history. Since 2006, Thai politics has been a real mess. Various Thaksin related parties and prime ministers have been thrown out of office, and/or banned from participating in electoral politics by judicial decision/coup. On different occasions, mass protests have shut down Bangkok’s airports and shopping districts and in 2010 there was a crackdown on a group of red shirts that had taken over the central shopping intersection in Bangkok, resulting in the death of around 70 protestors and a handful of soldiers and policemen. The most recent set of protests began late last year and were precipitated by an amnesty bill that the government (then run by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck) put forward. This would have granted amnesty to the leaders of the government during the crackdown, the Democrat Party, and would also have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he’s been in exile since being removed from power, and was convicted of corruption in absentia). While the government withdrew the amnesty bill, the yellow shirts (who no longer wear yellow but instead drape themselves in the Thai flag and blow whistles on the streets of Bangkok) ramped up their protests, causing the government to resign, occupying several key intersections of Bangkok for three months (under the catchy slogan, “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”), and doing their best to block the election that took place of February 2 of this year. While they were largely unsuccessful in this, they were successful enough that it allowed the courts to throw out the legitimacy of the election. Throughout these protests, their key leader, Suthep, has called for the elimination of the government and the removal of the “Thaksin regime” in language that is often violent, misogynistic and frankly repugnant. He has called for the appointment of a “neutral” party to lead the country to “reform,” though beyond the removal of Thaksin and his sister, what reform might mean has been quite vague.
The coup has been less about violent repression, and more about stifling voices and dissent. General Prayuth, the coup’s leader, immediately arrested many of the political leaders, and has required that other political leaders, both elected and unelected, red shirt and yellow, academics and journalists report to the army for a “cooling off” period. This is officially meant to provide negotiations the opportunity to be successful, but most understand that it is meant to quell opposition. Small protests have occurred throughout Bangkok, and they have been met with an overwhelming presence of army and police, well out of proportion to their numbers or threat. Many people have taken the coup fairly phlegmatically, saying to me that this is “Thai style politics,” but many others have taken to symbolic modes of dissent: reading 1984 in groups of four (groups of five are proscribed); taking selfies of themselves doing a three-fingered salute taken from the Hunger Games; handing out and eating sandwiches in public. These have all been banned by the junta. The junta also shut down Facebook for about an hour a week ago – this really got people upset, and it was quickly restored.
To be honest, I don’t know how the people of Thailand or Bangkok feel about this. My evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve talked to a number of people, mainly monks, in the two and a half weeks since the coup. Some are willing to wait and see how it goes, others think it is simply a terrible turn of events. Two conversations with several monks in particular stand out. The first was a couple of days after the coup. I biked up to a wat, and as I was parking my bike, the monk came up as if he had been waiting for me, spitting mad, anxious to tell me how terrible and stupid the coup was and how much worse it would make everything. The second was a few days later at a university library. This monk was also not happy about the coup, but rather than being mad, he was sad and scared. “Many people disagree,” he said. “They cannot speak out. Big gun.” He moved his hands showing someone being grabbed. As he said this, his voice became quieter and quieter, not wanting to be overheard.