Politics in Thailand has a handy colour code: red shirts are worn by the numerically far superior rural voters, and yellow shirts by the opposing elite concentrated in the capital, Bangkok. And then there is the ubiquitous green — of the armed forces, which have carried out 12 coups since constitutional monarchy began in 1932.
On 22 May, when army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha declared the latest takeover, the global outlook for the politically fractured country turned an entirely different colour: a turgid, unpromising grey. “I will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt,” Gen Prayuth declared on local television as the soldiers fanned out across Bangkok, taking over television stations and ministry buildings.
But unlike with Egypt, where convoluted political interests kept the US from uttering the ‘c’ word, the Thai military action was quickly condemned as a coup, even though the military at first claimed it was only trying to “restore order” — after more than six months of anti-government protests by yellow shirts had claimed at least 28 lives.
Nearly $3.5 million in US aid to the Thai military was suspended and Secretary of State John Kerry called the junta leaders to express his disappointment. Japan, the biggest foreign investor in the country, said the coup was “regrettable” and called for democracy to be restored. India too, fresh off a clear mandate in the world’s biggest elections, moved quickly to recall an army contingent which was in Thailand for Maitree, a regular joint exercise with the Thai military.
The red shirts, who make up the vast rural support base of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile in Dubai, are poor and have had not much say in policy controlled by the urban elite in Bangkok. That changed with the rise of Thaksin in 2001. He was prime minister till a previous coup in 2006 forced him out of the country. As prime minister, Thaksin nurtured the farmers and the rural poor, inventing a constituency with his “populist” policies. The rise of this rural vote bloc has changed the face of Thai politics, though the Bangkok elites claim its overarching influence is evidence of a “flawed model of democracy”.