For two and a half months Thailand has been rocked by protests. The army, one of the country's central pillars of power, seems reluctant to get involved. But rumors are spreading about a potential military coup.
Thailand's recent history has been a succession of political crises. Thai society is deeply divided. The so-called "Red Shirts" have been fighting against the "Yellow Shirts" for years.
The former support the democratically elected government led by interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The latter back the opposition headed by former MP Suthep Thaugsuban and the monarchy. Over the past years, the country's political class has failed to reconcile these differences.
The military has always played a key role in political disputes, carried out 18 coups over the past over the past 80 years. The last time this happened was in 2006 when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted. Michael Winzer, Thailand expert at the foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Bangkok, explains that every time the country has reached a point where no solution could be reached through political means, the military has intervened. Now the country is facing yet another political impasse, but the military is hesitating.
Military also divided
The military's power arises above all from its autonomy. "The military has its own human resources policy and is relatively independent of other institutions," said Winzer.
The military has traditionally had closer links to the royal family and the Yellow Shirts. This has to do with the fact that the army's primary task is not to defend of the nation, but to protect the monarchy. The Thai King is the supreme commander of the military. All in all, says Marc Saxer, analyst at the foundation Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, the military's main role is to provide security within the country.
However, its traditional proximity to the Yellow Shirts has diminished over the past years. There are two main reasons for this: First of all, interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, - who was voted into office by the Red Shirts - "spent a lot of establishing good connections to the military," Saxer explained.
On the other hand, a substantial proportion of the Thai military forces comprises of the so-called "watermelons," referring to soldiers who are green on the outside, but red on the inside. This faction could lend support to the government in the event of a coup.
Winzer additionally points out that a majority of soldiers come from the country's north and northeast regions, where the ruling Pheu Thai party traditionally enjoyed strong support. However, this applies only to the lower ranks. The military leadership has been predominantly "yellow," Winzer told DW.
Experts are of the view that undertaking a coup would be highly risky for the military. Unlike in the past, the military itself is split and the Red Shirts are now better organized. A coup could lead to a civil war. "However, keeping the option of a military coup on the table will give the army leverage and the ability to assert its importance in the power struggle." This strategy can be evidenced by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha's announcement that "door is neither open nor closed" to a military intervention.
Analysts believe a coup is unlikely to generate long-lasting gains. Winzer says "The Gordian Knot is so strong that it could not be battered by a coup." There would be a lack of options to pull Thailand out of the crisis after a military takeover and eventually the country will be forced to return to electoral politics.
Saxer believes that military involvement, including deployment of tanks in the capital Bangkok, is unnecessary. According to him, it is no longer an appropriate strategy to seize power. He thinks the coup will be carried out instead by courts and independent commissions. What we experience in Thailand is the prototype for a coup in the 21st century," Saxer told DW, adding that in order to avoid international criticism and deceive their own people, Yellow Shirts will pursue a strategy of pseudo-legality.
The yellow shirts dominate institutions such as the nation's Constitutional Court, Anti-Corruption Authority, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and the Thai Federal Court.
The institutions are attempting to criminalize the "red" government in an effort to block any constitutional way out of the political crisis. "The opposition are trying to prevent the normal democratic process until the point is reached where there is no other way out of the stalemate than to set up an unelected People's Council, as demanded by the opposition." In the end, Saxer says, "it will appear as if it was all legal."