Shawn Kelley | Coup now, democracy later

A Vet-ted Mind | Before the West butts in, let Thailand solve its own problems

· June 8, 2014, 6:08 pm   ·  Updated June 11, 2014, 8:03 pm

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Thailand is a beautiful country. I’ve had the privilege of visiting places from the beaches of Phuket to Bangkok’s metropolis to the mountains of Chiang Mai. The people I’ve met are some of the friendliest I’ve known, which is part of the reason — along with my military sense of the preservation of democracy — that I was immediately incensed when I learned of the coup d’etat on May 22. I demanded an immediate return to democracy — the same stance held by many countries in the United Nations, including the United States.

However, once passion subsided and reason reestablished a foothold, I decided to take a closer look at both the situation and my reaction toward it.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, this is Thailand’s 12th successful coup since 1932. The main problem that has led to this current coup — and arguably many of the previous — arises from the differences between three main parties in Thailand: the Pheu Thai Party, the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the Thai military. The PTP, or “red shirts,” generally come from the lower and working classes. The PAD, or “yellow shirts,” generally come from royalist upper and middle classes. When one party is in power, the other claims they are abusing power and stages protests, which often turn violent. Before the military stepped in on May 20, Thailand had been suffering from seven months of party clashes and riots that resulted in 28 dead and over 800 injured. When General Prayuth Chan-ocha stepped in, he had a decree that he stuck to: no more Thai blood.

The coup d’etat was achieved without a single loss of life. It’s been a few weeks since and there have been many changes — some good, some bad. A curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. was enacted, then shortened to midnight to 4 a.m. Recently, the junta reached out to the tourist community and lifted the curfew in three tourist heavy areas.

Safety has been established, if at a cost. Gatherings of more than five people have been banned, and the junta has taken a more strong-arm approach than is necessary in certain matters. I agree with the military that dissenters should give this process a chance, but arresting journalists and academics and telling them to “behave” is not the best solution.

Still, looking at Chan-ocha’s past, I believe he does have Thailand’s best interests at heart and realizes things need to change if the country is going to find peace. He rose through the ranks as a yellow shirt, but after putting down red-shirt riots in 2010, he became more moderate, reaching out to the families of those who died in the violence. He also understands the economic challenges that Thailand faces, having sat on the executive board of a number of companies, and he has been a director of TMB Bank since October 2010.

I sense some much-needed major political reform is on the way. If things stay as they are, Thailand will end up the same as Bangladesh after its 2007 coup, after which the same parties and leaders came back into power. If that happens, it is only a matter of time until the next coup d’etat.

I think at this point everyone, the United States and United Nations included, needs to wait and see what direction this coup takes. If Chan-ocha keeps to his word, we could see an even stronger Thailand emerge. We do need to keep watch, though. While an immediate return to democracy may not be the best course, an eventual one should be, though I am also not that worried about a military regime putting itself in power. In a paper published last August in the British Journal of Political Science, the authors show that since 1991, most coups have given way to competitive elections within a few years, especially in countries like Thailand that have at least seven years of democratic experience and have held at least two elections.

In Thailand, I believe all sides should adopt the mindset of a resident of Chiang Mai who was recently interviewed in Al Jazeera: “I am not a red [shirt] or yellow [shirt], I am Thai.”

Shawn Kelley is an LPS sophomore from San Diego studying English and Japanese. His email address is skelley@sas.upenn.edu.

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