Hindsight is a tricky thing. It is the understanding of something only after it has already occurred. You may anticipate or predict it, but getting a truly clear picture of what has happened mostly is something that is visible after the fact.
In the case of Thailand in the past 12 months, however, the deterioration from dysfunctional and disrupted democracy to an unashamedly military dictatorship only confirmed our deepest fears that a military coup and thus the regression back to darker, more authoritarian times was something unfortunately never completely out of the question.
Who would have thought at this time one year ago that the self-inflicted, massive political own-goal by the ruling Pheu Thai Party of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, full of hubris and total miscalculation, would spark the large, sustained anti-government protest, ultimately paved the way for the military coup?
The hostile takeover of power on May 22, 2014 was a watershed moment in Thailand’s modern history – and it was not for being the 12th such military coup the country has suffered since 1932. It was the consequential execution of what the Thai military thinks the lesson of their last coup in 2006 was: that it failed to remove the political forces of former Prime Minister (and Yingluck’s older brother) Thaksin Shinawatra. In other words: the hindsight of the Thai army is that their 2006 coup wasn’t good enough!
And now, six months – or 28 weeks – later, the Thai military junta is in firm control of the discourse, both politically and publicly.
The military-installed political bodies are intended to permanently re-shape the power structure in the foreseeable future. The fact that then-army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now also prime minister – and thus not only remaining the face of the coup but also representing Thailand on the international stage – indicates a thoroughly sustained and even increased presence of the military in politics.
It has also set off a persistent, revisionist re-imagineering of Thailand’s society, complete with a ‘Happiness Campaign’ to win back the hearts and minds it has intimidated (and still is), and a revamped education curriculum that focuses on teaching ”12 values” in order to create a new Thai generation that is good at following, but not at leading.
But while this re-imagineering of ‘Thainess’ might have worked a few decades ago, it is unlikely to work this time for a number of reasons: the political crisis in the past decade has been so polarized that both military coups have unnecessarilyy antagonized its opponents, mostly groups that are either pro-Thaksin or pro-democracy – or both (yes, that’s possible too)!
Furthermore, assisted by the internet and social media, Thais are now less likely to hide their animosities in public, especially when they feel that their right to express themselves may be taken away. Hopefully some of those that protested for the previous government to be removed, and gleefully rejoiced when that eventually happened, will have the hindsight to see that they have bet on the wrong horse.
This week alone saw sporadic and small flashes of dissent, as students activists flashed the three-finger-salute made popular by ‘The Hunger Games’ movies. And yet it was enough to send the junta into a panicked frenzy, detaining everyone showing the sign and sending them for ”attitude-adjustment”, even forcing a movie chain to drop the blockbuster from its program and sending police officers to patrol screenings.
It is evident from the reactions this week alone that this is a junta that regards disagreement as division, dissent as damaging, differences as disharmony, and defiance as dangerous.
It is telling that deputy prime minister General Prawit Wongsuwan said essentially that the junta graciously allow the right to disagree with them, ”but they cannot express that” publicly. Let that sink in: freedom of thought is apparently allowed, freedom of speech is not…! Even with the hindsight of knowing of the widespread backlashes (not to mention the bad PR) it is unlikely they would have acted any different, since force and intimidation are the only methods the military know to maintain order.
And that is basically what we have been dealing with in the past 28 weeks: A military dictatorship hellbent on changing the political system in its very own way solely for the purpose of permanently locking out their political enemies, even if it means to disenfranchise a huge part of the country, so that it could only lead to more dissatisfaction in the future. And with that mindset – and the help of the still ongoing martial law – it will force it on all of us.
This Thai military coup will have short- and mid-term ramifications, but they can never take control of the long-term implications nor escape the consequences – the future direction of Thailand hinges on the willingness to actually learn from this potential future hindsight.
The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:
Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
Part 1: Economic stability comes at a cost under Thailand’s military junta
Part 2: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand
Part 3: An education fit for a zombie?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts