The comprehensive repression taking place in Thailand today under the military junta is by any measure comically absurd.
In what other country on earth can one imagine being arrested for playing the French national anthem, for reading George Orwell, or throwing up the three-fingered Hunger Games salute? The “happiness” campaign seemed to beg for ridicule, and then when British comedian Jon Oliver delivered, he too was threatened with jail if he ever set foot in the country.
And then, after all that, the same junta turns around and asks people not to call it a “coup” or a “dictatorship.” If this were a Hollywood movie, it would be derided as implausible.
But underneath this heap of symbolism, there is a more dangerous plot, one that resonates with past coups in Thailand to control how these events are understood and interpreted among the public, and who gets to write the history.
Thailand’s unique power dynamic, which has featured no fewer than 18 coups, has been described as a form of “internal colonization,” whereby the powers of the state are frequently seized by elites and rendered virtually limitless against the rights of citizens whenever the establishment feels its survival hangs in the balance. It has led to a highly irregular and breathtaking mentality among many elites, who see the rural poor as subhuman: their rights as citizens in a democracy are seen as conditional privileges, instead of inalienable rights under law.
Under such a distortion, controlling the national narrative is paramount. The elites are the ones who get to define what “Thai values” are, and based on this normative groupthink, they mount coups and topple elected governments to protect their interests.
The century-long struggle between elites and the majority population in Thailand has been defined by these same contours between military, elites, and state. Despite having voted the elites out of power in the past six elections, the coup once again is not only seeking power, but also depriving millions of Thais their right to exist as a part of the national narrative. In the aftermath of many atrocities, this informational vacuum is often referred to as historical memory.
The topic of historical memory has long been a core theme among many Red Shirt groups, and it’s a issue of vital importance to many countries which have experienced tragedy and civil war. But specifically, the comparative case with Guatemala that has struck my attention for its similarity to Thailand in recent days while reading the excellent book “Paper Cadavers” by the Canadian academic Kirsten Weld.
On the surface, there is very little that connects the tiny Central American republic of 15 million to the Southeast Asian juggernaut of 67 million people, with completely different societies, economies, and political systems. But what Guatemala and Thailand share is fascinating: a common history of repeated, violent military coups and heavy U.S. involvement as a result of the Cold War, creating a lingering distortion in each nation’s political culture.
Many passages from Weld’s book are chillingly applicable to today’s Thailand.
As part of her research examining the secret archives of Guatemala’s military dictatorship, she came across a former guerilla named Gustavo Meoño, who for a time served as the director of the archives. According to Weld:
“Meoño’s postwar objectives included the recovery of what he called ‘democratic memory’ – a focus on the history of political struggle, rescuing and restoring the stories of those who had resisted dictatorship, even if their alternative visions had failed or been flawed in their execution. Without protecting this ‘democratic memory,’ Meoño believed, Guatemala would never construct a democratic national identity; instead it would continue to criminalize those who fought for the right to think differently, discouraging future youth from politics and leadership. ‘The idea of the rights to memory, truth, and justice is not an issue of the left or of the right,’ he argued. ‘It’s an issue of fundamental human rights, independent of ideology or political militancy.’”
Having worked for years in Guatemala in a dispute amongst ruling elites, I would observe that both Thailand and Guatemala have suffered the bad luck of landing in Washington’s Cold War calculus at the height of its penchant for regime change. The process of military coups and the accompanying information campaigns – directly or indirectly supported by the United States – resulted in the moral legitimation of seizure of power by the military as a type of “guardian” of the “values” of the “people.”
A declassified CIA document from 1961 entitled “Thailand’s Security Problems and Prospects” reveals the committed support of the U.S. government toward the brutal Field Marshall Sarit, who ruled Thailand from 1958 to 1963, whom they counted upon as a reliable partner against communism, no matter what his tactics were to repress his population. Whereas in Guatemala, as well as Iran, the play-by-play planning of military coups took place in Langley.
In both cases, actions by the U.S. government assisted certain groups of elites in both countries to amass tremendous power at the cost of important democratic and social reforms. It has created a formidable impediment to reconciliation and national unity after civil war (in the case of Guatemala), or ongoing coups and massacres (in Thailand).
So far, General Prayuth’s coup has been among the most ambitious in recent history. The junta has released a well-prepared document the generals refer to as an “interim constitution.” In reality, the document isn’t a constitution at all but appears to be a compilation of military decrees that consolidate and legitimate absolute power.
Unlike previous military coups in Thailand, of which there have been many, the thrust of this fake constitution is to return Thailand to a pre-1932 system that transforms the population from citizens back to subjects: there will be no elections, only appointments. Only those appointed by the military will participate in any level of decision-making, and even then their decisions have to be approved by the junta.
Soldiers have already taken the majority of seats in the newly created National Legislative Assembly, with the rest of the appointed members coming from the most extreme corners of Thai society. It is nearly 100% male, with just 12 females out of 200 seats, given to women such as Songsuda Yodmanee, the daughter of Field Marshall Sarit, who has openly advocated a return to her father’s barbaric methods.
That is why I believe we should be viewing the current coup in Thailand with far greater alarm, as it threatens to carry out the most radical changes in terms of rights, citizenship, and society in the country’s recent history, seeking to wind back the clock to the dark ages of feudalism where the majority not only losing their right to vote, but also losing their right to truth.