Existential Struggle?

All You Need to Know About the Thai Coup

Is the army restoring order—or just keeping its least favorite political party out of power? From the major players to what they’re fighting about, all the key details out of Bangkok.

Erik de Castro/Reuters

Thailand’s powerful army seized control of the Southeast Asian nation last Thursday, two days after declaring martial law and insisting that the action did not amount to a coup d’état. Here’s a primer on the civil strife that’s been roiling the country.

The Basics

Thailand, a constitutional monarchy of 67 million people famed for its beaches, friendly citizens, sex industry, and The King and I, is a key U.S. ally with a turbulent history of coups and attempted coups, beginning with the overthrow of the last absolute ruler in 1932. The latest ouster of a civilian government followed six months of street demonstrations by protesters campaigning to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The army declared that the coup was necessary to restore law and order, and bring peace to the kingdom. Almost 30 people were killed in the course of the protests and more than 700 injured.

GALLERY: Striking Photos From Thailand’s Military Coup (PHOTOS)

Whats All the Fighting About?

Many see the unrest as part of an existential struggle for control of the nation’s destiny ahead of the ascension of a new monarch once the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 86 and has reigned for almost 68 years, is gone. For many decades the country has been run by more or less the same people: Bangkok-based elites rooted in the well-to-do upper and business classes, royalists (and ultraroyalists), and the military. These “oligarchs” have been largely out of power since billionaire telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra led the Thai Rak Thai party to a landslide electoral victory in 2001. Thaksin romped to victory on a populist campaign that appealed to millions of Thais, especially in the north and northeast, who had felt marginalized for generations. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and exiled, but iterations of his coalition—most recently the Pheu Thai party, led by his younger sister Yingluck—have won every election since. Most analysts say Thaksin parties will win any election in the foreseeable future, a prospect the establishment finds unacceptable.

But Since Thailands a Democracy, Shouldnt Elections Stand?

That depends on the definition of democracy. The ideal of a one-person-one-vote election that’s judged by independent observers to be free and fair is regarded here as an oversimplification. The Shinawatras’ enemies maintain that democracy is about governance and conduct as well as winning elections, and they insist that the Shinawatras won by essentially bribing the electorate with promises of “stuff,” in much the same way Mitt Romney accused President Obama of winning reelection. They say the Shinawatras are corrupt and that in any event Yingluck was just a puppet running the country on behalf of her exiled elder brother.

The Rolling Judicial Coup

Yingluck Shinawatra was removed by the Constitutional Court this month for abuse of power. Her nominal sin was that she transferred the country’s national security adviser, a civil servant, to a job as adviser in the prime minister’s office. Between the 2006 coup that evicted Thaksin and the 2014 version that just toppled acting Prime Minister Niwattamrong Boonsongpaisan, two other Thaksin-allied premiers were removed by the high court, including one found guilty of conflict of interest—for hosting a weekend cooking show. Prior to Yingluck’s removal by the court, she also had been charged with dereliction of duty by the National Anti-Corruption Commission in connection with a bungled government rice-subsidy program. Critics have assailed what they consider flimsy pretexts to bring down Thaksin allies and noted that corruption allegations are hardly unique to the Shinawatra side. As an example, fierce anti-Thaksin protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in a previous Democrat Party administration, was accused in the 1990s of handing out lots to wealthy families in a land reform program intended for farmers. The recent rulings and accusations by courts and other public bodies against Thaksin allies have been described by some as a “silent rolling judicial coup.”

What Legitimacy Does the Military Coup Have?

Coup leader and army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he intervened only to prevent the country from descending into chaos, to restore law and order, and to bring about peace through dialogue, reforms, and eventually, new elections. The military junta, now calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has received a royal endorsement from King Bhumibol. Gen. Prayuth has dissolved the Senate—Yingluck had earlier dissolved the lower House—and says all legislative power is vested in him and the junta.

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What Are These Reforms Everyone Talks About?

The term “reform” is bandied about by many, but few have submitted any viable, concrete proposals. Some have called for an appointed government and even a return to absolute monarchy. For those who fear and loathe Thaksin, reform seems to amount to constitutional and electoral changes that make it impossible for his allies to win any future elections and ban the Shinawatra family from politics.

What Happens Next?

Gen. Prayuth “invited” more than 200 politicians, activists, businessmen, and media representatives to meet with the army and detained dozens of them, including opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and pro-Thaksin protest leader Jatuporn Prompan, as well as Suthep and Yingluck. (The ex-premier was eventually released.) The move apparently was to make sure none of the invitees was up to any mischief. The general also has warned against anti-coup protests and has said security violators will be tried in military court. Scheduled to retire in September, he says he will stay on as long as it takes to “fix” Thailand and that the timing of new elections will depend on the situation on the ground. The junta reportedly has appointed a six-member advisory board to look after security, the economy, and laws. Evidently responding to mounting alarm about a steep drop in tourist revenue, the junta has relaxed a daily curfew, changing the hours people must be off the streets from 10 p.m-4 a.m. to midnight-5 a.m. Whether the coup will lead to violence may depend on whether the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” who hail mostly from Shinawatra strongholds up-country, defy the junta and take to the streets.