It was a marked shift from the strong coup denials the armed
forces had routinely made up until then. Prayuth was not just
speaking off the cuff in front of reporters. A document drawn up by
the army’s chief of staff and dated Dec. 27 – the same day the
general faced the media - runs through various scenarios of how the
crisis could unfold and how the military should respond.
One of the scenarios details what the army should do "if at any time
the situation is beyond the control of police". If that happened,
the document says, the army would impose a state of emergency or
impose martial law. The document also provides guidance on how to
take power "while acting in a neutral manner", and how to help
mediate between the warring camps.
As events unfolded over the next five months, the army found itself
dealing with most of the scenarios mentioned in the document: failed
attempts at mediation, rising political violence culminating in
There have now been 12 successful coups over the past eight decades
of Thailand’s modern monarchy. But the latest, on May 22 following a
last ditch effort by the military to mediate, did not follow the
usual script, which runs: lock down Bangkok while the rest of the
country watches with bemusement from the countryside, untouched by
This time, the army moved swiftly across the country rounding up
politicians, activists and academics, most of them “red shirt”
supporters of the ousted government, according to multiple
interviews with activists, the military and families of the
The meticulous moves to put a military government in place – and the
lack of any timeline for a return to democracy soon – have many
wondering if the generals have plans and scenarios for running the
country for a long period of time.
The junta has denied planning the coup in advance. Lt. Gen.
Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, the deputy army chief of staff, told
foreign media on Thursday that "planning for a coup is treason which
is why we did not plan it".
"What we did was a risk, because if we don’t carry out our plan
properly then we might go to jail or be put to death, Chatchalerm
said. "There was no planning in advance."
The junta has suspended the old constitution, muffled the media and
imposed martial law – including prosecuting civilians in military
The generals are promising unspecified reforms aimed at ending the
power struggle that has stymied the kingdom for years. It is a
contest between a royalist establishment, including the military
brass, elite bureaucrats and big business, and a mainly rural-based
"red shirt" movement loyal to populist former premier Thaksin
In the months ahead, the military will have to grapple with how
democracy will ultimately work in Thailand: through elections that
inevitably return a pro-Thaksin government or through an
establishment that aims to limit the power of elected - and, in
their view, corrupt - politicians.
That question has become ever more acute because King Bhumibol, a
revered figure who has reigned for nearly seven decades, is 86 and
only recently was released from three years in a Bangkok hospital.
Anxiety is growing about his succession.
The Thai army began putting in motion plans to seize control of the
country after men armed with guns and grenades killed three and
injured more than 20 in an attack on anti-government protesters at
Bangkok's Democracy Monument. The May 15 attack at the monument –
erected after a 1932 coup that overturned an absolute monarchy –
conjured up the military’s worst nightmare: civil war in the Kingdom
of Thailand, whose ailing king has all but faded from public view.
It signalled to Gen. Prayuth that the situation was getting beyond
the control of police.
"After that incident, the feeling among prominent members of the
military was that the mood of the country had changed and every side
was prepared to use violence," army deputy spokesman Veerachon
Sukhontapatipak said. "We soon announced martial law (on May 20) to
give everyone a chance to retreat. But after that day, clear steps
were put in place, and ‘option B’, which we all wanted to avert, was
A "judicial coup" preceded the military one, in the view of the
ousted government. And it left the military in a dilemma. On May 7,
the Constitutional Court removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
– Thaksin’s sister - and several cabinet ministers from office for
"abuse of power". Pro-government protesters warned of "civil war" if
an unelected leadership was put into office.
But the court unexpectedly decided to leave a rump of the
pro-Thaksin government in power as a caretaker administration, and
that alarmed the military, according to a source involved in back
channel talks between the government and its opponents in the
"They (the caretaker government) couldn't sign any national security
laws. They were powerless to deal with civil unrest," the source
said. That's when the military started thinking about an "option B",
the source said.
The army document seen by Reuters said the military needed a Cabinet
directive to take control of the streets and disperse protesters,
which the caretaker government was unable to give.
The same court in February annulled an election that would likely
have returned Yingluck’s government to power. In another decision,
it banned the use of force to disperse anti-government protesters.
Yingluck herself sowed the seeds of the anti-government movement
last November, when the lower house of parliament passed an amnesty
bill that could have allowed Thaksin to return from self-exile.
Though the bill died, it spawned a protest movement under former
deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban. He demanded the government be
dissolved and replaced by an unelected "people’s council".
A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin, 64, revolutionized Thai
politics. He won two landslide election victories with his brand of
retail politics, populist programmes and crony capitalism. The army
ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup, accusing him of corruption, nepotism,
abuse of power and insulting the monarchy. He faces a two-year jail
sentence after being convicted in absentia on a conflict of interest
charge. From his outposts of exile – London, Dubai and Hong Kong –
he has funded and effectively controlled the “red shirt” movement.
Allies of Gen. Prayuth insist he was a reluctant coup-maker, given
the army's experience the last time it tried governing. The 2006
army putsch only entrenched political divisions and was infamous for
botched policies, including imposing capital controls that caused a
15 percent one-day plunge in Thailand’s stock market.
Prayuth, then a major-general, was part of the junta that seized
control of the government in 2006. When he was appointed army chief
in 2010, he was seen as a hardline royalist, opposed to the red
shirt movement. In 2011, Jatuporn Promphan, a red shirt leader and
member of parliament, was imprisoned for making comments deemed to
be disrespectful of the monarchy. The case was prompted by a
complaint by Prayuth.
Plans for a full military takeover were already advanced when
Prayuth declared martial law on May 20 – two days ahead of the coup
- ostensibly to maintain order while the politicians worked out a
solution, a senior military officer said.
"From the moment martial law was announced, there was a 50-50 chance
he would take power, but he first wanted to give all sides a chance
to back down," the military officer said.
The junta has provided no timeline for when fresh elections would be
held, but have indicated it won't be any time soon.
The coup contingency planning documents seen by Reuters details how
to give power back to the people "in the shortest time possible".
Chatchalerm, the deputy army chief of staff, said conditions had to
be right and divisions healed before there could be a return to
"How long it takes to heal divisions between two groups that has
been going on for 10 years?" Chatchalerm asked foreign media.
[to top of second column]
After the Sept. 19, 2006 coup, it was 15 months before elections
were held, in December, 2007.
Prayuth’s new team of advisers, a junta kitchen cabinet, includes a
former defence minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, and former army
chief General Anupong Paochinda. The two are towering figures in
Thailand's military establishment and have close ties to Prayuth.
All three are staunch monarchists who helped oust Thaksin in 2006.
A Reuters report in December revealed Prawit and Anupong had
secretly backed the anti-government protests that undermined
The junta faces an uphill struggle to
revive Thailand’s economy, which contracted 2.1 percent in the first
quarter from the previous three months, and some economists say a
recession may be unavoidable.
Prayuth’s advisor overseeing the economy is Pridiyathorn Devakula.
He was finance minister in the military-installed government
following the 2006 coup that introduced strict - and, after the
stock market tanked, short lived - capital controls to prop up the
DECAPITATING THE RED SHIRTS
In Bangkok, the junta publicly summoned at least 258 activists,
intellectuals and journalists to report to army bases. The purpose
of the round-up was to "calm everyone down", prevent further
incitements to violence, and silence critical comment that "might
affect the military's work", according to junta statements. Almost
all of them have been released.
But in "red shirt" country in the north and northeast, where the
potential for anti-coup dissent is much greater, the military is
conducting a more draconian sweep and things have been less
"At least in Bangkok, the military issues a formal announcement. But
in the provinces it's informal," said an academic from the northern
city of Chiang Mai who is in hiding. "They just show up in a truck
and take you away."
In Chiang Mai province, the Shinawatra family powerbase, local Army
commander Major General Sarayuth Rungsri declined to answer
questions about how many people were detained.
Interviews with activists, academics, detainees' families and the
military reveal at least 20 red shirt organisers were taken into
custody in Chiang Mai and neighbouring Chiang Rai province. Most
were released on Tuesday.
Those who were detained say they were made to sign documents –
euphemistically entitled "Memoranda of Understanding" — pledging to
swear off political agitation, incitement or unauthorised travel.
They were warned that breaking the contracts could mean prosecution
and up to two years jail.
"They questioned us on whether we’re radical, whether we’re
stockpiling weapons," a Chiang Mai red shirt leader who was detained
for six days, and who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
The red shirt leader said he was held with 11 other activists on an
army base in comfortable double bedrooms. Detainees were briefly
questioned at the start and end of their time at the base, as well
as given briefings by army officers to "correct their perceptions",
the leader said.
Asked if the army’s efforts succeeded in changing his mind, the red
shirt leader said: "Let’s just say I know the answer, but I can’t
say it out loud. It’s like I have something stuck in my throat. I’m
bound by the conditions of my release."
At least half a dozen academics and activists, most unaffiliated
with the red shirts, are on the run. None of the names of those
detained were found on lists released by the army in Bangkok.
In Chiang Mai, the military's tightening grip has thwarted the kind
of uprising that Thaksin's loyalists warned of in the lead-up to the
Sarayuth said he would be clamping down further.
"Whenever we have a report that one or two people are preparing to
do something, we will go and control the situation," he said.
Daily protests peaked in Chiang Mai on Saturday, when at least 200
people jeered at and sporadically scuffled with police, but have
fizzled since. Attempts by anti-coup activists to organise flash
mob-style protests via social media and mobile messaging have been
foiled by military intelligence gathering, with soldiers taking over
rally sites in advance.
At least 16 people have been arrested in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
at anti-coup protests. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are just two of 36
provinces in the north and northeast. It is not clear how many
people have been detained across the entire region.
In the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, another red shirt
stronghold, local activists say seven of their leaders have been
detained. Their names were absent from army lists disclosed in
DEFUSING THE ROYALISTS
Some in Bangkok believe the coup was a way out for protest leader
Suthep, whose support had been dwindling in recent weeks and whose
ultimatums for the government to step down were going nowhere.
For months, leaders of his People's Democratic Reform Committee
(PDRC), backed by Thailand's conservative royalist establishment,
had called on the army to intervene.
Samdin Lertbutr, an anti-government protest leader, said protesters
knew the army would step in if the government did not stand aside,
but told Reuters there were no closed-door meetings between the army
and the PDRC leadership.
"We weren't surprised the army staged a coup. It was not the result
we wanted," Samdin told Reuters. "We wanted a people's revolution,
and up until Thursday (May 22), we believed that's what we were
going to get. There were no meetings between us and the army to
discuss the possibility of a coup."
A second PDRC leader, Somsak Kosaisuk, agreed that the protest group
did not know a coup was imminent when they attended talks at the
Army Club that Thursday aimed at trying to reach a compromise with
the caretaker government.
Army chief Prayuth "asked the government side one more time whether
it would resign before he took power," Somsak said.
"They said they would not."
That’s when Prayuth calmly announced he was taking power. "Everyone
must sit still," Prayuth said, according to two sources who attended
Immediately after that, hundreds of troops surrounded the Army Club
and whisked away everybody from the building. By bringing all sides
together for the talks, Prayuth’s forces were able to detain many of
Thailand’s most powerful political figures at the same time. The
coup had gone off without a hitch.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pairat
Temphairojana; Editing by Alex Richardson and Bill Tarrant)
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