BANGKOK, Thailand – It’s known across the world as the Land of Smiles because its people are famously friendly. So it was a shock to many last September when the tanks rolled into the streets of Bangkok, signaling that the military was taking charge in Thailand.
It’s been six months since the soldiers came out of the barracks. The military remains in control, but it isn’t always obvious when you walk the streets of Bangkok.
I took a stroll around the main government buildings a couple of days ago looking for signs that the generals are still pulling the strings. I walked around for a couple of hours, snapping photos in the midday sun, but I failed to get any pictures of tanks on the streets or troops hanging out on corners, which you usually see when the military controls a country here in Asia.
Instead, the area around Government House and Democracy Monument, where the troops first went to seize control, looks more like a huge party.
Thailand is in the middle of a yearlong celebration to mark King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 60th anniversary on the throne, and the whole government district is covered with dramatic Thai artwork and pictures of the king.
The king is clearly loved by his people.
Every Monday the vast majority of workers in Bangkok and across the country wear yellow tops to show that love. The soldiers, when they staged the coup, also wore yellow ribbons to show their support for the king.
But not everybody is happy. The military has faced stiff criticism over the past six months. One of the first things it did was to create its own government, and the politicians it appointed haven’t been very successful.
Policies such as new currency controls spooked investors so much that they triggered a 15 percent fall in the stock market, forcing the government to reverse some of the measures.
The generals have always promised that democratic elections will be held by December, and coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin reiterated this last week in a nationally televised news conference to mark six months since the takeover.
But Thai newspapers have been voicing concerns that the generals won’t relinquish power, and some politicians still doubt they will.
There is also supposed to be a referendum on a new constitution this year. The debate over its creation, however, centers on the worrying possibility that it will include a line that the next prime minister will be appointed rather than elected.
The last elected prime minister of this country, Thaksin Shinawatra, remains in exile. He was ousted while in New York preparing to give a speech at the United Nations. Thaksin, who has a home in London, has recently been visiting a number of Asian countries and giving interviews, much to the dismay of the Thai military.
One of the main reasons cited for the coup was allegations of corruption against Thaksin. The Thai public are still waiting for charges to be announced.
Sonthi said at his news conference that he knows the Thai people are waiting for the prosecution of wrongdoers, but they have to be fair to all parties. Thai police, though, have said they are now recommending Thaksin be charged on three counts of insulting the king.
This is an extremely serious charge in Thailand, and police say the ousted prime minister could face a jail term of 45 years if convicted. That is, of course, if Thaksin returns to this country. The military says he should stay away for now.
Thaksin still has strong support among some Thais, including many of the rural poor in the North as well as some well-organized compatriots who are still operating here despite restrictions on them.
Just last weekend hundreds of Thaksin’s supporters clashed with police in Bangkok at a rally demanding the resignation of the government.
If all goes to plan, the unelected government will fade away at the end of the year when elections are staged.
It is important for this region that elections take place and the military go back to the barracks. Despite the coups and corruption, democracy has thrived in Thailand over the past few decades. Neighboring countries such as Myanmar, ruled by a repressive military regime, would like nothing more than to see democracy fail in Thailand.