Yellow, red and a coup d’etat in Thailand

Thailand’s military takeover has many asking: what happens next?

The Thai military’s hold over opponents – whether real or perceived – continues to tighten in the Land of Smiles, with government officials on both sides of the country’s colour divide locked up amid heightened warnings that anyone who steps out of line will pay a price.

And people are listening to those warnings. “You can’t wear red anymore, it’s too dangerous. These soldiers are targeting anyone who does,” Red Shirt supporter Nongnuch Karunyalert told me at a demonstration.

It remains unclear exactly how many people have disappeared into the military detention system, or when they’ll emerge. But nobody has been overlooked, including politicians, business figures, scholars, and journalists.

Small and sporadic protests have popped up, including a heated exchange of words, pushes, and shoves on Sunday as about 300 anti-coup demonstrators angrily denounced the seizure of power after months of political paralysis that effectively ground government functioning to a halt.

But since Monday, all has largely been quiet after the army issued stern warnings that those going against it would suffer the consquences. Make no mistake about it, Thailand’s military is in full control of the country – and it appears to be in no hurry to surrender any of the power it seized last Thursday.

The military said it needed to takeover to create stability after warring politicians wearing yellow and red failed to hammer out a consensus and the threat of violence increased.

The struggle pits the old elite close to Thailand’s revered monarchy against a relatively new one – the Shinawatra family from Chiang Mai in the north.

Yellow represents the monarchy and the way things used to be. The colour red is worn by those who adore Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire telecoms tycoon, and leaders linked to him. Thaksin barged his way into Thai politics by wooing the vast number of people of the north and northeast with promises of improving their lives through his Thai Rak Thai – “Thais Love Thais” – party.

He swept to victory in elections in 2001. He or those close to him have easily won every vote since, after implementing populist policies such as cheap healthcare, job creation initiatives and fuel and rice subsidies for the millions of voters.

But everything went awry after tensions with the long-running power structure grew. The new kid in town had ruffled the feathers of the old guard.

While out of the country in September 2006, the army staged a bloodless coup and Thaksin later fled to Dubai, where critics in yellow accuse him of calling the shots from his desert exile.

Yellow protests against the red government began in November 2013 and never stopped, with eight years of political tug-of-war culminating in last week’s coup, the 12th coup d’etat in modern times. The military had seen enough.

Many are wondering what will happen next.

Can the military achieve its stated objectives of creating social harmony in a highly divided society through indefinite rule? Will democracy and the ballot box be tossed aside for some undefined “political reform” that’s envisioned to solve all power-sharing problems?

It’s anyone’s guess what the answers are to these imperative questions. But one thing is certain at present – seeking these answers has become much more difficult – and dangerous – during the past few days.