BANGKOK (Reuters) - A “closed for maintenance” sign hangs near Bangkok’s historic Democracy Monument. Thailand’s new military leader says he, too, is repairing the country’s democratic institutions after seizing power on May 22.
Small anti-coup protests have garnered much media attention, amid international condemnation of General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s action. But for many in Bangkok, the sight of troops on the streets is a welcome one after seven months of sometimes violent political turmoil that snarled up the city.
“Courage, my child,” said an elderly woman wearing an “I love army” tee-shirt, one of a group handing flowers and water to troops guarding a Bangkok army facility under the sweltering sun, as she gave a pink rose to a soldier.
In a country where loyalty to religion, monarchy and homeland are drummed into the collective psyche as the pillars of unity, pro-establishment groups see the troops as guardians of national cohesion.
Since the army toppled fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, Thailand has been sharply divided between his supporters in the poorer north and northeast and the traditional establishment in the capital and the south.
Middle class voters in Bangkok mostly favor the establishment. Those Reuters spoke to at a pro-army gathering on Tuesday said they approved of the coup if it meant getting rid of Thaksin’s influence.
They say governments led by the populist tycoon and his supporters condoned widespread nepotism and corruption and drained Thailand’s coffers of billions of dollars to shore up populist policies designed to appeal to rural voters.
“When people are sick they need medicine. It might be a bitter pill but we need to swallow it,” said Pak Preecha, 30, a businessman, as around 40 coup supporters handed out Thai flags near Democracy Monument and sang the national anthem with gusto.
“VILLAINOUS POLITICIANS, GOOD-NATURED SOLDIERS”
Prior to the coup many local media outlets portrayed soldiers as heroes, pitting them against villainous politicians and policemen who fattened their wallets with kickbacks. “Soldiers are good-natured, protectors of the country,” reads one banner outside an army barracks in Bangkok.
Just like in 2006, however, the coup has emphasized Thailand’s divisions.
The military has stifled dissent and sent home the tens of thousands of people camped out in the capital for months supporting one or the other faction, but still faces small daily gatherings of protesters shouting, “Soldiers, get out!”
On the other side, groups supporting the military have mushroomed on social media, even as the junta has rolled out draconian measures including the detention of former prime ministers and journalists.
Facebook groups such as “Support NCPO” - the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta has called itself - and “Support Thai Military” have quickly gathered steam.
One Facebook user calling herself “The People’s News” said “millions of Thais are happy to see the coup”, and that anti-coup protesters were trying to discredit the military.
Others dismiss foreign criticism of the coup and say Thailand’s crisis is one that outsiders simply don’t understand.
“No matter what they call Thailand – a dictatorship even – we don’t care. Foreigners don’t know just how bad corruption got in Thailand.”
General Prayuth said he had no choice but to intervene, amid growing violence between rival factions after months of protests against the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
He has vowed to reform the political system before a new general election, but has given no timeframe as to when a vote would take place. He has also issued a harsh warning against those who violate martial law, including political protesters.
That has failed to deter anti-coup flash mobs from popping up around the country. In Bangkok, hundreds have staged tense protests around the city’s Victory Monument, watched by troops.
For its supporters, though, the army could not have intervened at a better time.
“If soldiers didn’t come, Thailand would have collapsed,” said retired school teacher Kruewan Jongjitti, 60, as she held a bouquet of flowers to hand out to soldiers. “I want Prayuth to clean up the mess that government swept under the rug.”
Editing by Simon Webb and Alex Richardson