On Saturday 24 May 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, dissolved the country's Senate, Thailand's last functioning democratically elected body, and absorbed its powers into his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The General established the NCPO on 22 May following his coup d'état on 20 May.
Between 20 May and 24 May virtually all aspects of government were placed under the control of the NCPO, including the judiciary and the police. General Prayuth personally took charge of the office of Prime Minister, Ministry of Justice and National Police Agency. His Deputy Leader, General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, took over the Interior and Communications Ministries and a couple of others. An Admiral and an Air Chief Marshall shared several ministries between them.
Interestingly, Police General Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit was put in charge of several agencies like the Bureau of the Royal Household, National Buddhism Office and the Royal Institute – but nothing that would appear to fit his high police rank and qualifications.
So we know who's in charge then.
Many people familiar with Thai politics will no doubt take exception with my description of Thailand's Senate being "democratically" elected. At least it was when established in 1997 in accordance with that year's Constitution of Thailand. This particular Constitution, the country having had at least 17 since 1932, created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-member House of Representatives, elected mostly on a first-past-the-post system, and a directly elected 200-member, in theory non-partisan, Senate .
The 1997 Constitution was a first in many respects in terms of human rights and representation and went too far for the more conservative elements of the Thai authorities. It was repealed after the April 2006 House of Representatives elections were overturned by the Constitutional Court. One of the last Acts the Court made, the Court was itself dissolved after the Military coup d'état later that year and replaced by the Constitutional Tribunal.
Although Thailand's Senate remained in place, its role as an effective and independent democratic institution, from a Western perspective, is questionable. Writing for Gulf News on 26 May 2014, former Indian Ambassador to Thailand, Mr Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty warns:
"The real problem in Thailand is the lack of independent democratic institutions, with important institutions like the Senate (and) the higher courts, packed with nominated and partisan people who act as a bulwark for the royalist coterie and its supporters."
Interestingly, the trigger for the September 2006 Coup and subsequent dissolution of the 1997 Constitution along with its Court, followed an unsuccessful attempt by 28 members of the Senate earlier that year to remove Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, on very flimsy conflict of interest charges which could not stand up in the Constitutional Court – not a body that warmed to Mr Shinawatra or his then Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT).
Despite this and the fact that Mr Shinawatra had won the 2001 Election, missing an overall majority by three seats but forming a coalition, and the 2005 Election with an outright majority, the Army was determined to topple the civil government and the coup adopted the name of the Council for Democratic Reform (later, the Council for National Security). This nod to "democracy" may have amused The Economist which suggested at the time that the main reason for the Army intervening was to prevent (another anticipated) outright victory for Mr Shinawatra and the TRT in the elections which had been due to take place in October 2006. The Economist also highlighted the general lack of international condemnation for the overthrow of a democratically elected government and a Prime Minister who held a clear majority.
Accompanying the removal from office of politicians of the TRT and its allies and not widely reported, was the expulsion or transfer, invariably to lower positions, of hundreds of others suspected of having sympathies to Mr Shinawatra. These people ranged from Governors of provinces, particularly in the Central, North and North East where the party was strong, to higher civil servants and police officers.
The Military issued their reasons for staging the coup. There's the usual corruption excuse but, remembering that Thailand's Armed Forces' first loyalty is to the Monarchy, one gets the distinct impression that democracy is an alien imposition on Thai society and culture, forced on them by the West, maybe as proof of their "reform" after having been Japan's ally in World War II.
Two reasons given can be understood in terms of the confrontational elements in democracy versus the desire for harmony in a still devoutly Buddhist society:
"Erosion of faith on the national administration and impasse of political differences."
"Drastic increase in disunity among the Thai people."
The reason that goes to the heart of the problem surely must be:
"Evidence of words and actions which have shaken and proven to be against the very foundation of Thailand's democracy with His Majesty the King as Head of State."
Until 1932 and the Siamese Revolution of that year – it was really a bloodless coup d'état by a Western educated élite – Siam/Thailand, was an absolute monarchy, then ruled by King Prajadhipok, Rama VII of the Chakri Dynasty.
Recent Kings of Thailand, including the absolute, have been relatively enlightened and often much more progressive than the Thai aristocracy and those in authority. There has however been one legal aspect of monarchy used by the Military, or by opponents of any party, government or politician and that is to level the charge of Lèse Majesté.
All the Constitutions of Thailand, including the current one, have the clause: "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."
The Thai Criminal Code elaborates this further by making insults and defamatory remarks a crime and by including others close to the King. With the Thai judiciary throughout the past ten years giving a very wide interpretation of "defame" and "insults" and willing to encompass any tiny matter which could possibly besmirch any member of the Royal Family, any councillor to the Family or its offices and agencies. Cases of Lèse Majesté have risen from a handful per year before 2005 to well over 400 per year since 2006. The Law applies equally to Thais and foreigners and foreign companies in the country (like the BBC).
Whilst the great majority of Thais love their King, 86-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX, and insulting or offending him in any manner would be reprehensible to them, politicians find it more difficult to evade the charge.
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin led the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra claiming that "His Majesty must have been saddened" by the country's political problems and accusing Thaksin's government of Lèse Majesté
Why does the Thai Army, the loyalty of which is undoubtedly to the Monarchy and not to any government, use this law as a means to overthrow legally elected governments with large parliamentary majorities, when it believes that the King and the upper strata of Thai society is unhappy with government policy?
On 25 September 2006, Giles Ungpakorn, an academic from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University commenting on Sonthi's coup, told The Independent:
"It's a tale of two countries. You have the urban middle classes and the rural poor. Thaksin was the first to really provide political programmes for the poor. There is this argument that he won elections fraudulently, but there's no real evidence for that. I think the rural poor voted for him because he provided policies for them. That's democracy and if you don't like it you have to set up a political party and offer something better. In this country it's the rural poor who respect democracy – and it's the educated elite who don't."
On 03 July 2011, the opposition Pheu Thai Party (successor to the banned TRT) led by Yingluk Shinawatra, younger sister of Thaksin, won a landslide general election victory. The TRT by another name, guided by a now exiled Thaksin and following a populist policy with a number of socialist features, the Party won the support of that same rural poor (the Red Shirts) referred to by Giles Ungpakorn.
The loser of the election, Suthep Thaugsuban, a wealthy owner of palm plantations and shrimp farms, decided to resign from Parliament in December 2013 in order to organise mass protests by his supporters against the Government in order to bring it down.
Following this latest coup and the detention of hundreds of people by the military, which has been fully endorsed by the King, General Prayuth Chan-ocha's National Council for Peace and Order lost no time in authorising military courts to deal "severely" with all the cases of Lèse Majesté.....
Déjà vu or what!