The army-picked parliament in Thailand has impeached deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. She will not be able to take part in politics for the next five years. Worse, she now faces the threat of criminal charges being brought against her. Her ‘crime’ is as simple as it is innocent: her government gave subsidies to farmers, who have been greatly benefited by the gesture. Indeed, the Shinawatras, both Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, are venerated by Thailand’s poor. The siblings have in their unambiguous ways reached out to the underprivileged. Because they did, and despite the electoral mandate they received at the polling stations, they have paid a price. Today, it is once more the army which calls the shots in Bangkok. That is not surprising, given that the country has had a history of being commandeered by its soldiers in fair regularity. Add to that history the overwhelming, unquestioned place of the monarchy in Thai life. No one questions the king or the royal family, for to do so would amount to committing lese majeste. Democracy must conform to some less than democratic norms in Bangkok. Of course, the army reserves the right to step in whenever it feels it should. Popular sanction of civilian government be damned!
Perhaps the biggest condemnation of a military overthrow of civilian government was that of Pakistan’s Justice M.R. Kayani. Soon after the coup d’etat which brought General Ayub Khan to power in October 1958, Kayani quipped, in what was evidently a mix of humour and sarcasm, that it was a most wonderful thing that an army had occupied its own country. Kayani probably did not realize that the seizure of the state by Ayub Khan was only to be the first in a series. General Yahya Khan presided over Pakistan’s first general election in 1970, and then brutalized the party which won it, placing the man who would have been the country’s first elected prime minister in prison. In his time, even as an embattled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto moved towards a deal with his political opponents in July 1977, General Ziaul Haq had his soldiers and tanks seize the state once more. In the late 1990s, General Pervez Musharraf literally came down from the skies and oversaw his soldiers clamber across the gates of the prime ministerial residence in Islamabad and take the elected Nawaz Sharif prisoner.
You go into the history of nations which have had the misfortune of seeing their democratic experiments thwarted by the military at given points in time. A bunch of majors and colonels cheerfully murdered Bangladesh’s founding father and his family in the mid-1970s before they made Bangladesh a hostage to their brigandage. General Ziaur Rahman, in the name of a so-called soldier-people revolution, pushed the country back into the very darkness out of which it had emerged in 1971. In March 1982, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad did not think twice before overthrowing the elected government of President Abdus Sattar and foisting himself on the nation. What has happened in Pakistan and Bangladesh and now in Thailand is a malady which has consistently enervated the process of democracy in our times. It is something which has not happened and will not happen in India, where Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw once had to eat his words over his harmless comment that if he wished, he could have taken over power in the country. That was in the days after he had beaten Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. He was swiftly and properly disciplined. No general has repeated Manekshaw’s faux pas.
To be sure, soldiers have sometimes done good to their societies through historically necessary intervention. Mustapha Kemal Ataturk could not have propelled Turkey into the modern era had he not utilized his army in taking over the state. Neguib and Nasser overthrew a corrupt, sybaritic monarchy through employing the army in the task of leading Egypt to republicanism. Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers threw out a corrupt King Idris in Libya in 1969. The Bangladesh army prevented a deliberate corruption of the political process when it compelled President Iajuddin Ahmed to remove himself from the office of caretaker chief advisor in early 2007, and presided over a reform of such significant national institutions as the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Election Commission, thereby paving the way for a credible national election. Opinions may differ, but there is no denying the truth that General Park Chung-hee’s seizure of power in South Korea in 1961 led to the emergence of the country as an economic powerhouse.
Those are the exceptions. It is the general legacy of military take-overs in countries around the globe which has been distressing. Soldiers demolished the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. In Burma, General Ne Win ousted the government of Prime Minister U Nu in 1962, a feat repeated by his uniformed successors in 1988. A clutch of colonels caused a scandal in Greece when they seized the state in a coup in 1967 and would not go until they were forced out in 1974.
And, yes, what has happened in Thailand is a scandal its soldiers cannot live down. When military officers care little about the primacy of democracy and worry not at all about the ramifications of an overthrow of governments resting on massive public support, they only cause a haemorrhaging of the structure of the state. Citizens hang their heads low in deep embarrassment.
In Bangkok, the humiliation is not Yingluck Shinawatra’s. It is that of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. It is that of a monarchy which tolerates no criticism of it, but conveniently looks the other way when the will of the people is denied, defied, and defiled in all the brazenness of ruthless ambition.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist, current affairs commentator, and columnist.