Turkey and Thailand: A Tale of Two Coups

turkey-thailand-coupThere had been coups before in Turkey but none like that which transpired deep into the night of 15th July 2016. As the helicopter gunships and F16 fighter-bombers flew low over the rooftops of Ankara and Istanbul, and tanks and soldiers seized crucial areas, Turkey’s citizens – despite being fired upon by heavily-armed troops – began to mobilise to defend their hard-won democracy.

Yet it was the coup makers who claimed that it was they who were, in fact, taking action to defend Turkey’s secular democracy from the popularly mandated government. Calling themselves “The Council for Peace in the Homeland,” the coup plotters invaded the state broadcaster TRT and forced a news reporter, at gunpoint, to read a statement. The statement claimed that the putsch was launched “to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms and let the supremacy of the law in the country prevail, to restore order which was disrupted.”

Amazingly, this nonsense was taken at face value by more than a few international media outlets. On the night of the coup this was something echoed continually – “Turkey’s military have a long history of protecting secular democracy” was quickly established as an indisputable “fact”, essential to understanding the narrative of the July 2016 coup attempt.

Even this well-established “script” started to fall apart when the coup-makers made their next move. First the attack helicopters and F16s above Ankara began to strafe the General National Assembly, Turkey’s parliament. Then came the bombs. It didn’t take long for the international media to begin to recognise something highly unusual was taking place.

And lost, yet further, in the subtext of the July 2016 coup attempt was its uniquely different character. Historically, Turkey’s coups were overseen by Kemalist elements within the military – thankfully, this version of the “deep state” had been significantly weakened and removed by the recent Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. What made this coup unique was that it seemed to have no clear public leader and that it took place when the military had little reason to disrupt the elected government. The only “grievance” that the military could possible have had was that a major sweep to remove Gülenists from senior positions within the military was scheduled to take place later in 2016. Could it be the that July 2016 coup was being driven by its alleged mastermind, the billionaire cleric Fethullah Gülen, desperately trying to protect his interests whilst holed up in his Pennsylvania mansion?

For ordinary Turks, the Gülenist effect was something they were keenly aware of when they went onto the streets on the night of July 15th. In fact, their dislike of Gülen is something that likely spurred them on to defend their democracy in the robust manner they did. It’s also something the Western media are finally catching up with. Quoting the Turkish investigate journalist İsmail Saymaz a recent Guardian article entitled, “Why do some Turks hate the Gülenist movement so much?” stated:

“The Gülenists did an excellent job at convincing the west of their good intentions. They have an immense international network, are well-spoken and well-educated…. For 10 years we have suffered at the hands of a criminal gang that presented itself to the outside world as a movement for peace and interfaith dialogue, while ruthlessly moving against its opponents inside Turkey.”

The same article also examined the Gülenists infiltration of the Turkish military at length, stating:

In 2008, his last year of military high school in the western city of Bursa, Mehmet Koç noticed that things were changing in the Turkish army. The school had just been handed over from the army to the air force, and a new group of commanders took over the education of the cadets.

What Koç was seeing was the arrival of the Gülenists, the movement around US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former ally, accuses of being behind last month’s coup attempt.

But questions still need to be asked as to why did the Gülenists think the kind of violence and division unleashed by a military coup would be the best way to “resolve” the issues facing them and secure their power? Surely even a perfunctory examination of the recent history of “military juntas” would explain to the Gülenists the terrible forces they were unleashing and that it was unlikely that they would “win”.

thailand-coup-pdrc-attackScroll back to February 2014 and in Thailand a gun battle is taking place outside a Bangkok voting station. Gunmen linked to the extremist PDRC street movement are shooting at a group of Thai voters, killing one and injuring several others. The PDRC’s main objective is to disrupt the Feb 2014 general election called by the Yingluck Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai government – which itself had won a massive landslide election victory in 2011 – and create the conditions for what they hoped would be the end of Thailand’s democracy.

The PDRC had been on the streets for months in the run-up to the Feb 2014 election. They had engaged in reckless violence with credible accounts of them murdering, kidnapping and even torturing anyone who dared oppose them. On the stages at the various PDRC rallies speakers routinely descended into racist hate-speech, making blood curdling threats to end democracy and “cleanse” the country.

By some distance the PDRC weren’t the first group to call for the end to Thai democracy. Thailand has a long tradition of anti-democratic street movements linked to shadowy forces and urged on by unaccountable elites. Some, like the infamous 1970s’ Red Gaur, had participated directly in violence, such as in 1976 when dozens of students were slaughtered at Thammasat University.

The PDRC’s most recent earlier incarnation was in 2012 – a group called Pitak Siam who made the same threats using the same tone as the PDRC but without the same “success”. Pitak Siam’s leadership was foregrounded by a group of fascist-sympathising elderly former Thai Army generals who looked decidedly out of place in the modern hubbub of downtown Bangkok. In contrast, the PDRC kept their military links in the background and instead foregrounded their leadership with “Democrat” Party politicians and the fashionable sons and daughters of the Thai royalist elite. Nonetheless, the desired result was the same. In May 2014 after months of PDRC chaos and violence the Thai Army moved their tanks onto the streets and seized power.

“Stability” and “ending corruption” as always, were the rationales for the 2014 Thai coup-makers and the one they staged in May of that year was the 2nd in 8years and the 24th (including unsuccessful attempts) since Thailand’s first in 1932. Of course, tearing up a lawful constitution and removing a democratically elected government is by definition one of the grossest acts of corruption one could undertake. And, it’s self-evident, that the Thai Army and royalist elite’s addiction to coups has only increased & entrenched Thailand’s political instability, not cured it. Add in the Thai Army and elite’s criminality and the 1000s of deaths at their hands – the 2010 Bangkok Massacre and the 1970s Red Drums Massacre being two of their most brutal acts – and an image not of legitimate military or paternalistic royalists emerges, but that of thuggish gangsters.

Yet, despite the years of coups and massacres, the Thai Army and the royalist elites managed to dance through the raindrops as far as a proper analysis of their role in destabilising Thailand is concerned. Only recently have the international community and media started to ask searching questions about the royalist elite-led Thai “deep state” whilst the military still, mostly, lack any proper scrutiny. This is despite it being glaringly obvious that over the last decades any elected Thai government soon becomes all too aware of the royalist-backed military holding a gun to the head of democratic civilian rule. The Thai Army conjoined with the unelected and unelectable elites are, de facto, a state within a state, not under any form of control and lacking any legitimate oversight.

So, instead of pushing back against the anti-democratic force destabilising Thailand’s democracies, the kind of major international powers who are well-versed in the application of the soft-power of human rights – the EU and USA in particular – have continued to arm and train the Thai military and give backing to the royalists. Much like in Turkey, the pre-baked narratives about the military hold sway – “stability” “ending corruption” meets “protect secular democracy”. All the time those pulling the levers – read Gülenists for Turkey and royalists for Thailand – have avoided proper analysis and investigation.

If we consider the actual evidence regarding the Gülenists it seems incredible given that this latest version of the Turkish “deep state” was ever considered to be “protecting secular democracy” when it began its coup on 15th July 2016.

Of course Turkey has its own long history of coups. The initial de facto coup happened in 1960 when the thrice-elected government of Turkey’s first democratically mandated Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, was ousted by a military force led, ostensibly, by one Colonel Alparslan Türkeş, a notorious Turkish fascist, and a small cabal of other army officers. Within 18 months Menderes and several of his ministers, against the pleas of the international community, then executed by hanging after being convicted, in an Orwellian touch, of “abrogation of the constitution”.

Of course, the 1960 coup did little to reconcile the differences in Turkey and by 1971, amid worsening domestic political violence, the military staged what came to be known as the Military Memorandum Coup. This Memorandum Coup ran along pretty much the same lines as 1960 with the only difference being it was achieved without moving any tanks onto the street. The threat of doing so was enough to allow the military to force the elected PM Süleyman Demirel to resign, institute a long period of martial law and commit acts of ruthless suppression.

By 1980, just as the army seemed to have returned to their barracks and democratic civilian rule was re-established, another, far more brutal coup occurred. With the Grey Wolves fascist street movement of the 1960 coup leader, Colonel Türkeş, running amok and the social democrat government of Bülent Ecevit unable to restore order, the army acted in September 1980 and established a junta and martial law. The crackdown that followed was cruel and thorough – dozens executed, 1000s disappeared and tortured, 100s of 1000s of arrests, over 1million people “blacklisted”.

This 1980 coup, regarded as the worst and most brutal by many measures, was openly supported by Fethullah Gülen, who published magazine articles praising the coup leaders for excising “the virus” (representative government) from “the body” (the coup-appointed secular state).

After a military-staged referendum on a military-backed constitution – the similarities with Thailand today are very apparent – Turkey held elections in November 1983 and a period of relative stability occurred.

With the rise of the Islamist but democratic Welfare Party in the 1990s, the military once more felt their hegemony come under threat and in 1997 staged the notorious “Postmodern Coup”. In effect, this involved the military ordering the elected government to resign and resulted in the dissolution of the Welfare Party and banning and imprisonment of several other politicians, including Recep Erdoğan, the present-day Turkish President.

Recep Erdoğan, of course, went on to form the AKP (Justice Development Party), win multiple elections, prosecute the 1980 coup leaders and then face down the 2016 coup attempt.

The 2016 defeat of the Gülenists and the latest mode of the “deep state” is potentially an epochal and defining moment for Turkey – an unprecedented show of unity by the Turkish people came out to challenge the putschists and refused to accept their legitimacy. There was no coup by military fiat and no coup by military force – and possibly, no one may ever be so bold as to test the Turkish people’s resolve again. The military’s days of meddling in Turkey may very well be over and full sovereignty now lays with the democratic choices of the Turkish people.

By contrast Thailand – where the coup was “successful” – a nation still subsumed under the forbidding dark clouds of a military junta, has many struggles for democracy yet ahead. Sadly this once-proud Southeast Asian kingdom has been reduced to the definitive example of what a bad idea a military government is. The situations in Turkey and Thailand provide salient lessons for us all – not least to remind ourselves of the old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”