Unity through disunity

Unity through disunity

THAILAND - When Thailand's military seized power in a coup in May, few were surprised.

The daily drumbeat of street protests, the closure of public offices, and sporadic violence had deadened economic growth, frightened tourists, and cast doubt on the country's stability. Here in Singapore, many with whom I spoke about the coup shrugged: Stability might lead to better economic growth. Besides, aren't these things always happening in Thailand?

Such an attitude parallels that of the military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Democracy was suspended, according to the junta, for the sake of national unity.

Supporters praised the coup as being particularly "Thai", invoking an idea of the Thai political process that involves a force - the military - above the political fray, ready to intervene if things get out of hand.

The junta has criticised foreign journalists and Thais critical of the coup for not recognising the cultural nature of the process and of undermining their efforts to heal national divisions.

To this end, they have sponsored free showings of nationalist films (perhaps as a counter to the sudden popularity of a three-finger salute taken from the Hollywood film The Hunger Games as an anti-coup meme), promoting concerts and other programmes to bolster "happiness" and "unity".

A new classroom curriculum, complete with new textbooks, with a new focus on history and a citizen's duties to the nation, is in the works.

The junta is correct in that coups d'etat have been a regular feature of Thai political life, with the present one the 13th successful coup since 1932.

But coups, and the promulgation of a more authoritarian, military- and monarchy-led democracy (hailed in Bangkok as "Thai-style democracy") are not unique to Thailand.

Earlier military dictatorships made similar claims - South Korea's Park Chung Hee, for instance, described his rule in nearly identical terms as "Korean-style democracy". Indeed, the junta's ham-fisted attempts to limit protest by rounding up academics, banning the distribution of leaflets, and summoning the heads of media outlets for stern talks (Facebook and Google were invited, but unsurprisingly did not show), recall vividly the era of Cold War dictators.

But there is a larger question here, beyond the idea that coups are particularly "Thai": Why would one need to maintain unity with force?

Something that is united should not have to be squeezed together with violent pressure. Why is unity such a problem in Thailand now?

In order to understand this, we must look deeper at the historical, ethnic, and social landscape of the country.

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