Faced with weeks of protests, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has dissolved parliament and called a general election for Feb. 2. The 46-year-old is attempting to stamp legitimacy on her administration after ferocious anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, claiming five lives and injuring hundreds. On Tuesday, Yingluck vowed not to resign before voting begins. “I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution,” she told reporters.
Over the past month, tens of thousands have taken to the street to accuse Thailand’s first female Premier of being a puppet of her notorious brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite this rampant animosity, analysts say her Pheu Thai Party will once again triumph at the polls — the sixth consecutive victory by Thaksin-backed parties, largely thanks to rural votes from the kingdom’s populous northeast. The opposition Democrat Party, whose 153 MPs resigned on Sunday in order to join antigovernment protests, has not yet said whether it will contest the upcoming ballot.
The scenario has a familiar ring. In 2006, following Yellow Shirt protests against a landslide win for Thaksin the year before, fresh elections were called and the billionaire telecoms mogul won again. But the Democrat Party had refused to take part and the military used this to question the legitimacy of the Thaksin administration and staged a coup. That ouster gave birth to the Red Shirt movement and seven years of sporadic bloodletting ensued between these color-coded factions of restive Thai society.
This time, however, few people expect another putsch, principally because of the adroit role the military is currently playing. While tens of thousands marched in Bangkok, unarmed soldiers stood by. When clashes broke out between the Red Shirts and students at Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University, many of whom support the Yellow Shirts, the army simply shepherded the injured out of harm’s way and medical personnel administered first aid. “I think the military is keeping itself far away from the protesters,” says Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Thailand. “Instead, they are trying to play a role as peacemaker.”
The shift is hugely significant. Since the end of absolute monarchist rule in 1932, Thailand has seen 18 coups, 23 military governments and nine military-dominated governments. But today the army has become a unifying presence. “The King is in a frail state and so any role the palace may have played has been reduced,” says Anthony Davis, Bangkok-based analyst for defense-and-security-intelligence firm IHS-Jane. “This has left, by default, the army as the arbiter of last resort.”
Thailand’s armed forces have suffered greatly over recent years from meddling in politics, especially after ousting Thaksin in 2006. While subsequently running the country from September 2006 to December 2007, “the military didn’t have a particularly smooth ride and their administration was widely pilloried,” says Nicholas Farrelly, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Australian National University.
Then, in 2010, a crackdown on pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protesters saw tanks roll into central Bangkok’s shopping district and snipers pick off civilians in the street. An inquest found that at least five men and one woman, all unarmed, were shot by troops while taking refuge at a Buddhist temple. State actors were deemed responsible for at least 16 of 92 protest-related deaths. The public was horrified. “What happened in 2010 was by any standards a disaster for the military,” says Davis. “So since then they have been on the back foot.”
Following this nadir, however, the armed forces have engineered a remarkable public-relations U-turn. In July 2011, floods inundated huge swaths of the country, claiming some 815 lives and affecting 13.6 million people. Soldiers were instrumental in mitigation and cleanup efforts, helping countless people to safety and saving many lives. “They won a lot of kudos from that and it was a significant boast to their image,” says Davis.
Certainly, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears wary of intervening in the current crisis. According to a report in Thailand’s the Post Today newspaper, he said: “We must be patient and seek a peaceful solution,” playing down the possibility of another coup. “Under Prayuth, who for all his gruff exterior is a smart man, the military has absolutely no desire to get caught up in coups again,” says Davis. Sunai agrees: “I think the military has come to the conclusion that to take a direct role in politics would spark further divisions and undermine its legitimacy.”
Deft diplomacy has also taken place in order to heal rifts between Pheu Thai and the powerful men in green uniforms. “There is definitely an agreement between the military and key players in Thaksin’s camp, including Yingluck herself,” says Sunai. When Thaksin became Prime Minister in 2001, he set about trying to rein in the army by appointing key allies to the top brass, including his cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra. Such heavy-handed interference brewed resentment, a blunder Yingluck is too canny to repeat, preferring negotiation and buttering up instead. Under Yingluck, the Thai defense budget rose 5% to $6.1 billion for 2013 and is expected to reach $8.7 billion by 2018.
In addition, according to veteran journalist Shawn Crispin, writing in Asia Times, a formal deal was struck at a meeting in Brunei between the Thaksin camp, royal family and military in the run-up to Yingluck’s landslide victory in 2011. In exchange for Pheu Thai not pursuing prosecutions against soldiers for Red Shirts killed in the 2010 crackdown, the military agreed to stay out of politics. While the veracity of this so-called Brunei pact has been debated, what is beyond doubt is that Yingluck has steadfastly refused to seek retribution for these deaths and this “clearly contradicts her election-campaign promise that she would seek justice for people killed and wounded during clashes,” says Sunai.
Prayuth has now judiciously mediated talks between Yingluck and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who is currently charged with murder for ordering the 2010 crackdown. “What is striking is how the military is playing a very subtle, intelligent game,” says Davis. While there is always a chance that increased public disorder and bloodshed on the streets could push the armed forces to get involved, it seems clear that, unlike in the past, the military now sees its role as one of last resort. “They are clearly the level-headed defender of stability in Thailand and respected on both sides of the divide,” says Davis. And crucially, they have achieved this without lifting a single rifle.