For the Thai military, launching a coup in Thailand is one thing, but maintaining it is a whole other task. Probably one of the hardest jobs for the junta is to seek universal legitimacy from the international community – especially since “the transition of power” was very one-sided, to say the least.
So it comes as no surprise that the international reactions to the coup of May 22, especially from the Western world ranged from concern to condemnation (e.g. from the US and Australia) and sanctions against Thailand (from the EU), while China seized the opportunity for increased engagement with the military junta – which also explains why a group of Chinese businessmen were among the first to meet army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the coup.
Despite the backlash from the West, the junta claims* some positive acknowledgment from Vietnam, and it appears that other neighboring countries are equally amicable toward the Thai generals – resulting in some utterly bizarre statements:
Thailand’s military on Friday compared its seizure of power in May to restore stability after months of unrest to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s former junta in 1988 to snuff out a pro-democracy movement.
Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest and demonstrations by pro and anti-government protesters.
Perhaps unwittingly, the deputy chief of the Thai junta likened its seizure of power to one of the darkest chapters in the rule of Burma’s junta, its crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed.
“[Burma’s] government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. [Burma] had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand’s armed forces, following a visit to Bangkok by Burma’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing. (…)
The visit by Burma’s military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, marks the second by a foreign official since the coup, after that of Malaysia’s defense minister.
-“Thai Junta Compares its Coup to Burma’s 1988 Crackdown“, Reuters, July 4, 2014
In a separate meeting with junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his support for the NCPO solving Thailand’s problems. [Burma] understood the situation, said spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhapatipak*.
-“Junta did right thing: Myanmar chief“, The Nation, July 5, 2014
*(Side note: Almost all news where foreign envoys supposedly express their “understanding for the political situation in Thailand” are almost exclusively made by a Thai junta spokesman or member – so it’s to be taken with a grain of salt.)
A lot can be said about the apparent history-related blind spot not only on the Burmese army’s part, but also its Thai counterpart (and we already had a few examples of selective historic knowledge by Thai politicians in the past).
Reuters South East Asia Correspondent Andrew Marshall sums it up best:
That a top general from Burma has “hailed” Thailand’s military junta should alarm people in both countries: http://t.co/vgCcXRGzZ5
— Andrew RC Marshall (@Journotopia) July 4, 2014
In related news, there’s also some praise coming from the other side of the Thai border:
In a bid to reinforce the legitimacy of his government amid an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday looked west for an analogy.
He chose one that didn’t involve a ballot box.
Instead, he pointed to Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, which was formed after the military’s May coup and immediately began clamping down on dissenting voices, as a suitable parallel.
Both governments had received royal approval, Hun Sen said, and were therefore equally legitimate.
-“Gov’t as legit as junta: premier“, Phnom Penh Post, July 4, 2014
Hun Sen’s evident approval comes after he criticized the Thai junta for its handling of Cambodian migrant workers amidst a sudden mass-exodus in which an estimated 250,000 Cambodians have returned from Thailand, many out of panic after the junta announced a crackdown on illegal migrant workers and rumors of abuse in police custody.
However, this also follows the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a Thai ultra-nationalist activist who was arrested and jailed in 2011 after illegally crossing the border in late 2010 to claim that a disputed border region belongs to Thailand. Upon Veera’s return, 14 Cambodians have been released from Thai custody, but Thai officials have stopped short of stating that this was a prisoner swap.
On one hand, the Thai military states that it is “unfazed” by outside reactions (especially from the West), yet at the same time it seemingly gladly accepts legitimizing praise from other, not-so-democratic countries.
With neighboring rulers like these…!
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as freelance foreign TV correspondent. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.