Thailand’s army has tightened its grip on the country’s domestic political process since launching its coup d‘etat last Thursday. Up to 200 politicians, journalists, academics and activists have been arrested, with more ordered to surrender to authorities. The media have been tightly restricted on what can be reported and there has even been a brief shut-down of social media sites.
The army’s National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO), now acting as the government, dissolved Thailand’s semi-appointed Senate over the weekend, ending speculation that the army would use the conservative Senate appoint an interim prime minister. With this move, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed all parliamentary authority, although he has appointed a small body of advisers.
Further tightening the army’s grip on Thai politics, officers not deemed to be supportive of the coup, including national police chief General Adul Saengsinglaew, defence secretary General Nipat Thonglek and Special Investigations Department director-general General Tarit Pengdith, have also been sacked.
Thailand’s land borders have been closed and senior ousted government Pheu Thai Party figures who have not yet surrendered to the army have had their bank accounts frozen.
Further details have emerged as to how the coup was staged. The army chief called a meeting for 2pm last Thursday of Thailand’s government and opposition leaders, senators, election commissioners and key figures in the pro-government ‘red shirt’ and anti-government ‘yellow shirt’ factions to a meeting at army headquarters last Thursday. The meeting was ostensibly to avoid further yellow shirt protests planned for the weekend.
The talks became deadlocked over demands that the government resign and whether and when there would be fresh elections. When, two and a half hours after the meeting started, General Prayuth asked government Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri whether the government would resign, Chaikasem said it would not. General Prayuth then said he was seizing political power.
While most of the politicians at the meeting were then detained, senators, election commissioners and Opposition Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva was freed. Yellow shirt protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was also freed a short time later, indicating the army's political preferences.
It is now thought that the army will remain in power until Thailand can go to new elections under a new constitution, probably not until next year.
The new constitution, when it comes, is expected to include limits on majority rule, including increasing the appointment of members of parliament, formerly limited to 74 of the 150 members of the Senate. There have also been calls for extending the political role of the now ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his successor.
Meanwhile, in Thailand’s pro-government ‘red-shirt’ heartland of Khon Kaen in the country’s impoverished north-east, there were arrests over the weekend of 21 people said to be in possession of weapons and explosives, sparking fears of an armed anti-coup insurrection. An army spokesman claimed the group was supposed to launch the first stage of an armed insurrection against the new military junta.
Meanwhile, numerous , if small, anti-coup protests have sprung up in direct defiance of the government’s ban on gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers and police have so far acted with restraint in the face of the growing protests.
In Thailand's restive south, however, there have been more than 20 bomb blasts and further shootings since the declaration of martial law. Young Muslim militants, some who have now trained on the battlefields of Syria, have returned with a much less compromising approach to how their own political claims should be settled.
Thailand's main towns remained relatively quiet, but there was also an undercurrent that this situation - and Thailand's military rule - would not go unchallenged.
For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.
But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.
Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.