The Nation (Thailand)
Publication Date : 22-04-2011
Much of Thailand went into panic mode on Thursday (April 21) when a Thaicom satellite acted up, blackening TV screens and clouding the election mood. The good news is that the transmission problem did not last long and it apparently had nothing to do with political tension. The bad news is that Thais can count on many more nervous days like this to come in the near future.
If the recent utterances of anti-government red-shirt leaders are to be taken seriously, then there's a big cause for worry. They claim that a conspiracy has been set in motion to destroy the opposition Pheu Thai Party, or cancel the election, or both. Red-shirt leader and Pheu Thai MP Jatuporn Promphan has described himself as a "locked target" intended to set off domino-effect events culminating in another long disruption of Thai democracy.
Ironically, those most inclined to give the red-shirt theory some credence are the movement's rivals - the yellow shirts - who have been basically divided into two groups: those who "believe" the election is not going to happen, and those who "wish" it didn't happen.
If the chronology of recent events is closely scrutinised, then the red shirts have to blame themselves as much for any kind of a conspiracy.
Before Jatuporn triggered the current tension with his highly controversial remarks on the red stage on April 10, the Armed Forces had made an unprecedented move to deny publicly that a coup was being plotted. The top generals who appeared at the historic press conference not only ruled out a coup, but also threatened to charge anyone who might try to do it with treason.
Jatuporn's remarks concerning last year's crackdown on red protesters touched off a war of words with army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, lawsuits and counter-suits, as well as "morale support" gatherings for Prayuth at major barracks. Coup fears naturally rose and they peaked Thursday when TV screens went blank late in the afternoon for a substantially long period.
The no-coup school cannot envisage any solid pretext for power seizure. The country is weeks away from an election, and despite some controversial ideology expressed on the red-shirt rally stages, Thais are basically trying to find their way back to a better democracy.
That aside, Prayuth and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva are not political enemies. If Prayuth, infuriated with Jatuporn and some other red-shirt leaders, doesn't like the opposition Pheu Thai Party that much, it will make little sense if he tries to block it at Abhisit's expense.
Coup rumours could also be generated as a pre-emptive measure. Pheu Thai is gunning for an election victory, and thus to turn the international focus on the Thai military from now until then is not a bad strategy. All they need to do is make sure their outcry will not become a self-imposed prophecy.
The "coup, definitely" school cites the always popular pretext of "political impasse". The ruling Democrat Party and Pheu Thai are equally bad, and whoever takes the country's helm after the election will only make problems worse, according to those believing in the coup theory. This theory contains a big question mark, because it portrays the red shirts as ideologically dangerous people who have to be stopped. That means whoever's plotting the coup may want to silence half or so of Thailand, an impossible task unless the coup-makers are capable of turning the country into another Burma or North Korea.
This coup theory, however, originated from drummed-up anxiety over the ideology of certain red-shirt leaders and will be boosted if what is perceived as provocation does not stop. Some of the leaders have vowed to cease any "risky" behaviour that could be cited as a pretext. There seem to be signs from the movement that those who matter have realised they might have pushed it too far.
The most telltale sign that a coup is unlikely remains what Prayuth has said during his harsh criticism of Jatuporn last week. The Army chief was urging, in fact begging, Thai voters to turn out in full force to "change the country". Partisan and bitter he definitely sounded, but Prayuth didn't look like someone who was plotting against democracy.
Critics of the military and "there-will-be-a-coup" believers can always dispute this, though, as past examples show any general with the power to command troops can do it, and whatever he said or did prior to it never counted.