Back in May, the Thai Army took control of the country in what the world’s media called a coup d’etat. The term itself conjures up images of
tanks rolling down streets crushing everything in their way, troops marching into government buildings and ripping down pictures of the former government, hoisting new flags and terrorising the general population. Fears were exacerbated in Thailand when the army imposed a nationwide curfew on the country, stopping people from being on the streets from 10pm – 5 am. I was living in southern Thailand when the coup was announced and apart from the TV channels broadcasting army announcements all day, and going home a little earlier than usual from the bar, none of us in the anti-Shinawatra south noticed any great changes when we were placed under martial law.
Thai people have been increasingly concerned for their safety and the security of their country since the grenade and armed attacks on protesters increased under the former government’s rule in December 2013. Since May 22nd, there have been no armed attacks on anti-government protesters or other civilians in Bangkok or elsewhere in the country.
I was in Bangkok in late May, early June and while the city was definitely quieter than normal in the days and evenings, the place felt far safer than it did in 2009 and 2010 during previous times of unrest. Soldiers were patrolling the streets, often on brightly coloured scooters rather than humvees. The Army is still recovering arms and bombs from caches around the country. Many people suspect arms are being held in a particularly political monastery in Bangkok, renowned in the past for its ‘red-shirt’ affiliations, although this could be simply propaganda.
A Thai Buddhist monk I know shared his opinion on the coup. While he did not agree with the ousting of democratic power, he also felt that since the Army took control, Thailand and Thai people felt safer, that someone had their interests at heart.
Anyone who has visited Thailand – affectionately named The Land of Smiles – will have encountered smiling taxi drivers who will charge you double the correct fare. As in many developing countries, your chances of being ripped off by a taxi driver increase if you are a tourist. The taxi-mafia on Phuket, however, has felt the immediate wrath of the Army which is taking endemic corruption into its own hands. A few weeks ago, the Army arrested more than 100 taxi drivers on Phuket and dismantled numerous illegal taxi stands. Local gangsters had paid off the police and were running the transport systems around the island. Phuket attracts an estimated 5.3m tourists each year and that means a lot of exorbitant taxi fares set by cartels who operate above the law and an enormous amount of undeclared revenue for organised crime. What’s more, the Army has called the Anti-Money Laudering Office in to investigate claims that taxi drivers were being used to launder money. Direct action against taxi rackets should benefit genuine taxi-drivers and travellers.
Former PM Yngluck Shinwatra who oversaw the disastrous rice pledging schemes which robbed Thai rice farmers of millions of baht, placed already poor families in even worse financial straits and removed Thailand from its position as the world’s number one rice exporter. One of the Army’s first acts was to force the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, the state farmers bank,to pay out more than THB90tr (USD2.7bn) owed to rice farmers under the scheme and which Yingluck’s government had been unable or unwilling to do. The Army has now declared the rice scheme officially ‘dead’ which will come as a relief to the farmers who operated at a loss under it.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) voted to impeach Yingluck In June. The case against her had been the subject of protests since rice farmers joined the anti-government movement in March. The former PM is not under arrest but cannot leave Thailand and must inform the Army if she wants to leave Bangkok. Impeachment on charges of dereliction of duty could mean a five year ban from public office for Yingluck. The NACC has not found evidence of criminality although this has not been ruled out.
Illegal immigrants and trafficking
Thailand is one of the wealthiest countries in South East Asia and its borders are porous. Immigrants from Laos, Cambodia and Burma – both legal and illegal – cross the borders every day to work in Thailand. Construction firms using Cambodian workers build homes, offices and hotels up and down the country. One team who moved into a corrugated iron walled shanty in my old village in Thailand were so good they were paid THB450 (USD14) per day, higher than the average THB300 usually paid to a day labourer in South Thailand.
Cafes, hotels, restaurants and bars in Ko Tao, Ko Phangan and Ko Samui are staffed by eloquently spoken and well educated Burmese migrants who fled their own country to find some economic security in Thailand’s tourist industry. Less fortunate Burmese smuggle into the country on false papers and take whatever legal or illegal labour is offered. Then there are the thousands of children, women and men who are trafficked into the country to work in the sex trade or in bonded labour, slaves to whoever makes them work.
In the past dew days, stories of Cambodians fleeing Thailand amid fears of an Army crack down on illegal immigrants have flooded the web. The Army has stated there will be no crackdown and instead it has plans in place to regulate the firms who do employ migrant labourers. Thailand needs this workforce, so these plans should mean better conditions for migrant workers who have been ill treated in the past. The US’ Trafficking in Persons report downgraded Thailand’s status from tier 2 to tier 3, which means that the government is not making significant efforts to stop trafficking in persons and exposes it to the threat of sanctions from the US, such as halting bilateral assistance.
The downgrade should force the Army to do what’s right and clear up the country as much as possible before it hands control back to a democratically elected civilian government. A few weeks ago, Gen Prayuth declared the Army would be in power for at least 15 months; the press is now reporting that Army control could end in September 2014.
Too good to be true?
So far, the Army has delivered safer streets and an effective crackdown on domestic terrorism, made direct and high profile attacks on corrupt practices long seen as ugly pillars of society and is promising better conditions for migrant workers. Reading back over this post this could all seem too good to be true. The Army is controlling the media to some extent and I have read few editorials in the Bangkok Post that criticise Gen Phrayut Chan-ocha’s command. One infamous Thai woman in the UK, known as London Rose, is fierce in her criticism of the coup and the royal family in her video blogs. And her opinions are not welcome – she has been the target of attacks by Thai people in the UK and her family in Thailand have reportedly disowned her. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has reportedly called upon psychologists to stem the trickles of discontent among Thai people who are against the takeover, urging them to ‘look at democracy from many angles.’ They are also calling on Buddhist leaders to deal with inappropriate behaviour from monks.
Anti-coup protests in Bangkok have been small, well contained and non-violent as reported by the world’s media. Protests peaked in early June, when I was in Bangkok but seem to have quietened down significantly. On June 23rd, the Nation reported increased confidence in the Thai economy and a stabilised baht. Let’s hope this quiet confidence continues.