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The blueprint for Thailand's coup

There have been 12 successful coups over the past eight decades of Thailand’s modern monarchy.

FILE: Thai soldiers stand guard after army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha met with anti-government and pro-government leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok on 22 May 2014. Picture: AFP.

BANGKOK - On 27 December last year, Thailand's powerful army chief stood before a crowded news conference and stunned the beleaguered government of Yingluck Shinawatra by saying he would not rule out military intervention to resolve a deteriorating political crisis. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said "the door was neither open nor closed" when he was asked whether a coup would happen. "Anything can happen."

It was a marked shift from the strong coup denials the armed forces had routinely made up until then. Prayuth was not just speaking off the cuff in front of reporters. A document drawn up by the army's chief of staff and dated 27 December - the same day the general faced the media - runs through various scenarios of how the crisis could unfold and how the military should respond.

One of the scenarios details what the army should do "if at any time the situation is beyond the control of police". If that happened, the document says, the army would impose a state of emergency or impose martial law. The document also provides guidance on how to take power "while acting in a neutral manner", and how to help mediate between the warring camps.

As events unfolded over the next five months, the army found itself dealing with most of the scenarios mentioned in the document: failed attempts at mediation, rising political violence culminating in martial law.

There have now been 12 successful coups over the past eight decades of Thailand's modern monarchy. But the latest, on 22 May following a last ditch effort by the military to mediate, did not follow the usual script, which runs: lock down Bangkok while the rest of the country watches with bemusement from the countryside, untouched by events.

This time, the army moved swiftly across the country rounding up politicians, activists and academics, most of them "red shirt" supporters of the ousted government, according to multiple interviews with activists, the military and families of the detainees.

The meticulous moves to put a military government in place - and the lack of any timeline for a return to democracy soon - have many wondering if the generals have plans and scenarios for running the country for a long period of time.

The junta has denied planning the coup in advance. Lt. Gen. Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, the deputy army chief of staff, told foreign media on Thursday that "planning for a coup is treason which is why we did not plan it".

"What we did was a risk, because if we don't carry out our plan properly then we might go to jail or be put to death, Chatchalerm said. "There was no planning in advance."

The junta has suspended the old constitution, muffled the media and imposed martial law - including prosecuting civilians in military courts.

The generals are promising unspecified reforms aimed at ending the power struggle that has stymied the kingdom for years. It is a contest between a royalist establishment, including the military brass, elite bureaucrats and big business , and a mainly rural-based "red shirt" movement loyal to populist former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

In the months ahead, the military will have to grapple with how democracy will ultimately work in Thailand: through elections that inevitably return a pro-Thaksin government or through an establishment that aims to limit the power of elected - and, in their view, corrupt - politicians.

That question has become ever more acute because King Bhumibol, a revered figure who has reigned for nearly seven decades, is 86 and only recently was released from three years in a Bangkok hospital. Anxiety is growing about his succession.