Six years ago, today, Thailand’s army launched its 12th coup. Once again toppling a democratically elected government, the Royal Thai Army under the leadership of General Prayut Chan-ocha said that they had to take power to restore peace and stability to the kingdom.
The following is a brief oral history of the events that transpired on May 22, 2020 from the leaders of Thai society both then and now.
Part 1: A Coup on the Horizon
For months leading up to the coup, Thailand’s political scene was deadlocked between anti-government protesters and the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
The protesters had initially come out onto the streets in November of 2013 to oppose an Amnesty Bill which would have forgiven all political players of any previous crimes, paving the way for the return of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin had been in exile since a previous military coup overthrew him in 2006.
A group calling themselves the People’s Democratic Reform Committee led the protests. Headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and a group of core leaders, they opposed the Amnesty Bill.
Even though the government relented and backtracked on the bill, the protests continued.
Akanat Promphan (Former Democrat MP and PDRC core leader): The PDRC was a people’s movement. We wanted to reform and have a revolution by the people. In order to make that happen, we had to show a symbolic force. We believe that a show of force would be necessary to make the government make changes.
We wanted a period of reform before the election. The demonstrations started off because people wanted to show that they didn’t want the Amnesty Bill but as the demonstrations progressed, we realized that this was not the end of all of the problems.
What Thailand needed was a major overhaul, we wanted reform. It needed to take place immediately. We did not trust politicians with power, they were not genuine about changing.
We needed a people’s parliament to carry out the reform. The Senate would appoint an interim government. The interim government would handpick the people’s parliament to oversee the changes.
Arun Saronchai (Journalist for Anadolu News Agency): It was bullshit. What they wanted was a “people’s revolution” where the people were effectively cut out.
They wanted to appoint a non-accountable body to carry out reforms and put politicians on public trial. It is like these people never opened a textbook or read about the French Revolution. It was very ‘reign of terror.’
To make matters worse, the protesters were singing songs from Les Miserables, while marching and holding pictures of the king. My irony meter died that year.
Part 2: Political Turmoil
As the protests continued Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the House of Representatives and called a snap election scheduled for February 2, 2014. The PDRC, intent on carrying out their people’s revolution, picketed the protests and stopped people from voting.
The election was nullified by the Constitutional Court on March 21, 2014.
The court then removed Yingluck Shinawatra from office on May 7 for dereliction of duty and abuse of power over the transfer of a security officer in 2011.
Yingluck Shinawatra (Former Prime Minister of Thailand): The Constitutional Court removed me from office on the 7th of May. When they removed me from office, I understood immediately that there was going to be a coup. I just did not know when it would take place.
The cabinet then appointed an interim prime minister [Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan].
I became powerless to do anything except watch the situation unfold. After my removal, General Prayut Chan-ocha imposed martial law nationwide.
Akanat: It was havoc.
The Prime Minister was thrown out by the constitutional court, the government did not have legitimate power. We wanted the senate to exercise their power and appoint a government and then help the country reform and come to a resolution.
After declaring martial law nationwide, General Prayut and the army imposed security checkpoints throughout the country and retook government installations from PDRC protesters.
Prayut then called for all parties to enter talks at the army club, a rest and relaxation compound for army officers on Viphawadee Rangsit Road. For two days the sides negotiated...
Chaikasem Nitisiri (Minister of Justice under the Yingluck government): The situation was very tense over those two days. Although Khun Niwathamrong was the acting premier, I was given the task of leading the negotiations because of my legal background.
We were optimistic on the first day that the negotiations could be fruitful. My friends and some others had said it was only a matter of time before the coup happened, but we were optimistic.
Then on the first day, they asked the entire government to resign. En masse.
Obviously, we couldn’t do that, we had to at least ask our party members.
Part 3: Coup
As the negotiations continued into a second day, reports from the negotiations suggested that General Prayut was growing more and more agitated with the slow progress.
Chaikasem: There was a strange feeling from the very start, on the second day. As we were coming into the army club, we saw the journalists cordoned off to a different area from where they were a day earlier.
The military officers who were unarmed a day prior were suddenly carrying weapons and in full uniform. We also were not allowed to bring in our phones and tablets.
Despite this we carried on our negotiations, we offered for the cabinet to take a hiatus for two months to cool off the situation and the permanent secretary at each ministry would assume interim control.
But they did not want that…
Akanat: It happened so fast, there wasn’t much time to think. The military personnel entered the room and we were taken away to an army camp where they kept us for a few days. We had no idea there was going to be a coup.
As the politicians and protest leaders were shepherded into military vehicles to an unmarked location. General and now coup-leader Prayut Chan-ocha made a televised address to the nation announcing his intent to seize power.
Kasit Piromya (Former Foreign Minister and Democrat MP): I was already home by that point. I was not in the leadership of the Democrats at that time, so I was not asked to go to the army club to negotiate.
I was home when the announcement came on the television.
I remember when I was ten years old, I used to think that to be the Prime Minister of Thailand you had to be a Field Marshall or a General. I saw the television to see nothing had changed.
I remembered thinking to myself and thinking of the politicians that were there [at the army club] on the Pheu Thai side and Khun Abhisit and the Democrat’s side.
Why didn’t you do more to resist? Why didn’t you question Prayut?
Rangsiman Rome (Move Forward MP and Former Student Leader): I was training for a job at the Senate at the time. I was in the third year of my university program. I remember the traffic was so bad that day because of the army checkpoint so on my way home I changed my mind and went to Thammasat University at Tha Prachan.
The faculty were organizing a protest to say that they would oppose any coup going forwards. As they were organizing this petition, the coup announcement came on.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so angry in my life. A few students and I met up as a group and we agreed that we could not stand still because if we did that is just a tacit acceptance of the coup. So we organized a march from Thammasat to Democracy Monument for the next day.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal (Student Leader and Activist): I was only 17 at the time and in India on my gap year. Someone must have messaged about it because I turned on social media and watched the announcement.
I was so angry; I am still angry. The military not only robbed people of their voice but robbed me and people my age of democracy. I had never voted before then and they would continue to steal my right to vote until I was 22.
After the coup, core members of the PDRC’s leadership team gathered for a celebration dinner at an upscale restaurant in Bangkok. Many of them wore army fatigues.
Akanat: I don’t remember that.
Part 4: Looking Back
Yingluck: The reforms that the military instituted have not made the country better. We have gone backwards, especially our economy. The generals say that they launched the coup to bring peace, but this is the kind of peace that doesn’t bridge divides. It is a peace that is maintained by the threat of force.
The rules that govern this country are still under the shadow of and still smell of the coup. I mourn our missed opportunities.
Kasit: All my life, I have hated coups and soldiers. I’ve studied abroad, I’ve witnessed neighbouring countries overthrow the cycle of totalitarian rule. I’ve seen it in Taiwan, in Indonesia, in South Korea. Even in Bangladesh, who are behind us in terms of development, have maintained a respect for their democracy.
The army should not be in politics, there is no guarantee of progress; if anything it has regressed. They said they had a coup to defeat corruption, but this government is as corrupt as, if not more than, Yingluck’s.
The other countries have progressed but not us. Just look at the constitution. In the five years he was in power, the army wrote two constitutions: the interim one and the current one. In both, the first thing they addressed was protecting themselves from any wrongdoing.
Rangsiman: The coup inspired me to enter politics. I wanted to ensure that nothing like that could ever happen in this country again. This is what I am fighting for.
Akanat: The army has done a somewhat satisfactory job in carrying out our vision. It is more genuine than Yingluck’s. Obviously, I think there are some improvements that could be made but the indication is that the people accept this government.
This can be proven by the passing of the referendum on the constitution. This constitution was at the heart of the military’s reform and the referendum showed that people were generally happy with what happened.
Fuadi Pitsuwan (Fellow at Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy and Founding Program Manager of Harvard University’s Thai Studies Program): Many people felt betrayed in hindsight with the direction that PDRC took us.
I hope it becomes clear to many supporters that relying on a military solution should never have been an answer to rid Thaksin and his style of politics in the first place.
We basically have a Thaksin-style government now with all the same modus operandi and corruption is still rampant.
It is a vicious cycle that Thailand can never seem to get out of. We seem to be aiming for a really low bar in governance but we all deserve better.
We deserve a good democracy that delivers and we should aim for that.
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