The wide condemnation of the coup in Thailand is to be expected. Washington suspended $3.5 million in military aid, it’s considering halting $7 million more in direct assistance, and bilateral military exercises with this longtime ally have been curtailed.
Secretary of State John Kerry branded the coup as wholly unjustified. If but it were that simple.
The Royal Thai Army (RTA) didn’t want this coup, but amidst all the Red Shirt vs. Yellow Shirt wrangling was an uptick in violence driven by angry and threatening vitriol. The RTA saw itself as trying to save democracy, an alien concept to the West and indeed, many in Thailand. The situation remains tenuous. There were, and still are, no good options.
The press has well described the Red Shirt vs. Yellow Shirt political contest in the past week. The pro-former PM Thaksin Shinawatra reds (formally, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, UDD) proclaim an elite, money-grubbing, upper class backed by the RTA has subverted democracy. The yellows (formally, the People’s Alliance for Democracy) assert democracy has been thoroughly molested by vote buying, exceedingly rampant nepotism, and the passing of laws to line the pockets of the Thaksin clique. Neither side has expressed any political compromise, and violence has resulted.
It was this violence that drew in the RTA, which had been desperately trying to stay out of the chaotic political melee. Since well before the 2006 coup that overthrew PM Thaksin, the RTA understood that it no longer had the capability to administer the country and regulate its economy. The RTA then concentrated on its top three missions: safeguarding the king, protecting the people, and maintaining the nation’s territorial integrity. When recent violence and propaganda, particularly from the reds, threatened the latter two, the RTA felt compelled to act.
Red leaders do not shy from expressing their rage at the system. Since 2010, they have backed up their political rhetoric with violence, which has caused the RTA to take their narratives seriously. One outspoken red leader sporting a communist style red star on his beret, Wutthipong “Ko Tee” Kachatham-khun, asserted in January, “This is already a war, but so far it is an unarmed war. If there is a coup, or the election doesn’t happen, then it definitely becomes an armed war.” He further explained, “I want there to be lots of violence to put an end to all this. I’m bored by speeches. It’s time to clean the country, to get rid of the elite, all of them.”
The head of security for the Red Shirts in Khon Kaen echoed this by saying, “If there is a coup, of course I’ll go to Bangkok and fight. Millions of us will go. We’ll fight in many different ways. If necessary, it will be like the Vietcong fighting the Americans in Vietnam: a guerrilla war.”
Red Shirts in Chiang Mai, Phayao, and Phitsanulok raised the stakes of the reds’ threat narrative by calling for a “People’s Democratic Republic of Lanna” (PDRL) in recent months. Lanna was a Northeast Kingdom in what is now Thailand during the 13th and 18th Centuries that fought against Ayutthaya, the kingdom that eventually became Thailand. This ominous-sounding title, “People’s Democratic Republic,” suggests that leftist radicalism is at play here, perhaps influenced by ex-Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) officials seeking to institute a leftist regime as it tried to do from 1965-85 during a long, drawn out guerrilla war. This rebel term has received little attention in the press, leading many to assert it’s simply a scare tactic. When Ko Tee was detained by the RTA for promoting the PDRL, he insisted it was all satire.
Many Red Shirts have distanced themselves from this type incendiary rhetoric, swearing secession is not their cause. Democracy is, they say. This clearly demonstrates Red Shirt rhetoric, planning, and violence is not uniform, but it did not help the democracy-hailing reds when in March, PDRL supporters paraded with their Lanna flags unfurled in Chiang Mai, a bastion of pro-Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra support. Former PM Yingluck has asserted cessation is not in her deck of cards. “We want to see Thailand as one and indivisible,” she told the press.
The RTA has continually reminded all involved that secessionist planning, propaganda, and violence are illegal under Articles 113 and 114 of the Criminal Code.
It did not calm the RTA’s suspicion about impending war clouds when Red Shirts held a large “Beating War Drum” rally in Udon Thani in March to counter a rally by the yellow umbrella group, the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State (PDRC).
Worawut Rujanaphpan, a key member of a Red Shirt militia unit called “Rak Chiang Mai 51” hails the use of violence only in self-defense. “If they resort to violence, then we will respond in kind. Our principle is to protect democracy.”
UDD leader Jutaporn Prompan, usually fervently outspoken, became alarmed at the increasingly violent narratives in recent months and has appealed for calm: “It is possible there could be chaos which could lead to civil war.” He has urged the more angry reds to “come back to our train of thought, which focuses on peaceful means.” Jutaporn’s words have done nothing to assuage the situation. It seems that months of threat propaganda has helped indoctrinate some red militias to the point of no return, clearly demonstrating that political narratives, especially wrathfully indoctrinating ones repeated over and over, can indeed incite a dangerous frenzy.
The Red Shirts’ security forces are a complex mix of impassioned political activists, ex-CPT officials, ex-paramilitary Rangers, and a rumored smattering of ex- or serving military and police. The latter serve as military advisors that professionalize the force. The red militia is not a monolithic military unit but rather a confederation of units, some bent on secession and vengeance, and some bent on defending a democratically elected government. All of them have rallied to ex-PM Thaksin, however.
And to be sure, the yellows have their own security forces and have done violence. In January, yellows tried to assassinate Udon Thani Red Shirt leader Kwanchai Praipana in a drive by with an M-16, and in February, a PDRC gunman hiding an assault rifle in a corn sack fired blindly into a crowd of red protestors, wounding several. He became famous as the “popcorn shooter” but also was captured and confessed to being a hired triggerman for the yellows.
Red military preparations appear more serous and widespread, however. The reds assert that since the yellows are part of the “system,” they have the RTA as their army, so the reds must form their own.
Said an anonymous Thai military official, “Training is held in virtually every Red Shirt village. Most [of the training], however, is basic training for villagers, usually involving just learning how to use a gun.” Some of the more professional of this lot constitute the “Black Shirts,” which is a light strike force. Red Shirt militia strongholds are in the north and northeast of the country.
The Red Shirts have demonstrated their capabilities through a series of operations over several years. They are not posers. On 19 May 2010, after the RTA raided and destroyed their Bangkok protest camp, they coordinated riots at some 30 provincial halls throughout the country and razed many of them via arson. They also set fire to, and gutted, some of Bangkok’s modern business district skyscrapers. Subsequently, the 19 May army raid is a red rally cry, their moment of martyrdom. They also perceive this as proof that yellow leaning political establishment do not see them as part of the country. As many as 16 reds died at the hands of the state during or before this raid. It is critical to also point out some 92 people were killed overall during this time, including scores of yellows, one of which was a popular RTA Colonel.
The RTA grew increasingly unsettled over the growing red vs. yellow violence that dramatically surged in the fall. From November 2013 to February 2014, there were reportedly 23 killed and 768 wounded, mostly in Bangkok. This means in a four-month period, political violence claimed roughly five lives a month, and it injured 192 a month.
The violence has been piecemeal, but planned. For example, in December 2013, Red Shirt gunmen staged a drive by shooting on Yellow Shirt protestors outside PM Yingluck’s office, killing one. The next day they threw a homemade bomb at protestors near another government office, wounding five.
Reds have proclaimed for months their mass military preparations regarding organizing thousands of personnel, preparing weapons caches, establishing logistics chains, and readying communications networks. Said Pichit Tamoon, a former policeman serving in a red militia, “We have many men who are former military draftees. They’ve completed two years of mandatory training. They can handle heavy weapons.”
Mahawon Kawang, a Red Shirt leader who reportedly grew up with PM Yingluck, posited his view of the Red Shirt military strategy: “We’ll probably have to concede Bangkok. That will be the other side’s home base.” Mahawon sees the reds halting rice shipments to the Bangkok region and also cutting off its electricity, some of which comes from hydro-dams in red northern and northeastern bastions. This indicates high strategic thought using food and utilities as weapons, which is well beyond mere hit-and-run guerrilla warfare tactics.
Worawut of “Rak Chiang Mai 51” says of their strategy, “We are solid in the North, at an advantage both in terms of strategy and geography. The Northeast could be a reserve base, plus parts of Bangkok.” If war comes, he asserts, “The capital will become a battleground. If some people want to see Bangkok burn, they could see it.”
On 14 May, Red Shirt gunmen carried out a drive by on Yellow Shirts at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, killing two and injuring 20. They purportedly fired 40mm grenades from an M-79 grenade launcher and fired at the crowd with an M-16 rifle. Reds say it wasn’t them and insinuate it was yellows trying to get the military more deeply involved in the morass.
Regardless, having had enough of watching Thailand begin to implode, RTA Commander-in-Chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha on 20 May proclaimed martial law to stop the violence. After the feuding red and yellow parties met under the general’s guidance and refused to compromise, Prayuth feared more violence and took over by coup on 22 May.
Any question of the seriousness of the threats by the more angry reds was erased in the view of the RTA when its intelligence networks discovered several arms caches and pending attacks in multiple areas from 21-22 May. Army raids turned up assault rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, homemade bombs, and TNT explosives in Samut Sakhon, Lop Buri, and Bangkok.
Then on 25 May, the RTA says it arrested 21 people planning a terror attack that was supposed to take place in Khon Kaen. Amongst their weaponry and kit, the suspects had on their persons “Volunteer Ward Democratic National training documents” and UDD ID cards. All this indicated organization, training, coordination, and sense of purpose.
Though it may be loosely structured and none too uniform in purpose, the reds have nevertheless fielded a serious force. They firmly believe they are morally justified in their mission, which is to protect the democratically elected Thaksin clique of leaders.
The RTA’s perspective is this: is it democracy to let the reds and yellows kill each other? Is it democracy to let the reds plan and organize for insurrection, build arms caches, and conduct drive by shootings and grenade attacks? Is it democracy to let the yellows instigate turmoil that will further provoke the already-enraged reds? The RTA believes it stepped in to stop more murders and probably a civil war, which still might still happen, anyway.
In light of these facts, key questions for the Obama Administration’s State Department are these: should the RTA let Thailand go the way of Syria and then step in after thousands are dead? Would any presidential administration in America allow two political factions to kill each other piecemeal and then let a civil war happen and only then send in the military? No, it wouldn’t.
America – The White House, State, and Congress – should be smart enough to not simply brand Thailand as “country non grata” just because of the word, “coup.” None of this is to justify the Thai coup, just to more fully explain it and urge a more refined American response.
Thai coups are rarely, if ever, violent. As Asian history professor Dr. Robert Gowen says, “The RTA drive into the capital, pop the tops of their armored personnel carriers, stand up, shout ‘coup!’, and it’s over.” And while RTA coups always detain a cabal of opposition leaders, sometimes roughly, it doesn’t drag people out of their houses and kill them. It’s not a Marxist purge. At the same time, it is a coup, and they are forceful, decisive, and scary for civilians.
More, what happens post coup, especially in this case, might indeed get more violent, especially if red threat propaganda and war preparations are to be believed.
At any rate, Washington needs to adjust its international security calculus to incorporate more than just this single, damning label for the sake of U.S.-Thai relations, security in the region, and to maintain the budding momentum of the Asia pivot.
An official U.S. statement incorporating sympathy for Thailand as it wrestles with an historically dangerous impasse would be appropriate. Publically stating that the Pentagon was looking forward to a more stable time when military aid would resume with its oldest defense ally and longtime friend would help soothe U.S.-Thai defense relations. Even U.S. offers to help mediate would help the situation. But Washington has not done this.
Why is that? There are excellent Thai experts at State and the Pentagon that could help craft such a policy. A cookie cutter approach to Thailand, and to Asia writ large, is the way of the shortsighted ideologue. It will gut Obama’s Asia-Pivot, the only pending foreign policy success he’s had to date.
Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations. He is author of the newly published book, The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency.