Thailand: a coup for democracy?

Nick Cumming-Bruce
19 September 2006

In Bangkok's drab grey concrete sprawl, the colour yellow has become loaded with political symbolism. Thais associate yellow with their revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in May 2006 staged lavish festivities to celebrate sixty years on the throne. By then it had also become the adopted colour of the 100,000-strong crowds that took to the streets in April demanding the resignation of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And on 19 September, yellow scarves and ribbons hung from the barrels of tanks, and from the rifles of the soldiers who were sent to throw him out.

Striking swiftly under cover of darkness, Thai troops pulled off a textbook, bloodless coup d'état against Thaksin - but in the process they dragged one of Asia's liveliest democracies back to an era many Thais believed the country had long since left behind: one where men in uniform usurped constitutional authority at will.

With Thaksin on the other side of the globe preparing to address the opening session of the United Nations general assembly in New York, military bosses moved to end a government that in recent months had become increasingly divisive and destabilising. Tanks and troops ringed key government offices and installations and interrupted normal broadcasting to declare they had taken control. Coup leaders, led by army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin and calling themselves a "council of political reform", announced they had suspended parliament and the constitution and declared martial law. Government offices, banks, the stock exchange and schools were declared closed on 20 September, the day after the coup.

In a hollow gesture of defiance from New York, Thaksin insisted he was still in charge. His taped message, broadcast by a government radio station, declared a state of emergency and announced he had transferred the army commander to an inactive post. On the empty, rain-soaked streets of Bangkok, there was little sign that anyone had heard.

Within hours, the coup leaders had met Thailand's esteemed King Bhumibol to discuss their plans for a new government and soon after made their first television appearance. General Sonthi, with commanders of the other armed services and the police beside him, appealed for public support and promised they would soon return power to the people.

When it came, the king's public response was emphatic: he endorsed the takeover and announced that "in order to create peace in the country" he was appointing General Sonthi to head a new council of administrative reform. For his part, Sonthi declared that Thais would be able to vote in a general election in October 2007.

There is little reason to doubt the general's intention but the military need to act fast to demonstrate its reality. For many Thais, including many hostile to Thaksin, will view the military's intervention as at best a mixed blessing.

Nick Cumming-Bruce is a British journalist currently based in Bangkok where he has worked as a correspondent for the Guardian, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He currently works for the Landmine Monitor mine action team

Also on Thailand in openDemocracy, a series of columns by Jan McGirk that includes:

"Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (April 2005)

"Thailand's endemic insurgency"
(November 2005)

"Thailand's rising tide" (February 2006)

"Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair" (April 2006)

The paradox of power

In its favour, the coup has ditched a contentious and abrasive leader who in many citizens' eyes has done much to bring the country to its present crisis. Thaksin was elected to a second five-year term in office in February 2005 with a parliamentary majority and popular mandate unprecedented in Thailand's modern history, and a unique platform to pursue social and economic reform. Instead, his government became mired in corruption scandals swirling round his family and his ministers, culminating in the sale of his family's telecommunications empire to Singaporean investors for a hefty $2 billion, a transaction on which the family contrived to pay no tax.

Mounting anger over these matters acted as a catalyst for discontent on a wide range of other issues. Thais had tired of Thaksin's arrogant, sometimes foul-mouthed dismissal of his critics; this was compounded by his bullying of what had once ranked among Asia's freest media, including multi-million dollar lawsuits against journalists and even threats to their security. Many applauded the harsh crackdown he unleashed against drug traffickers, but were disturbed by his inability to solve an escalating insurgency in Thailand's mainly Muslim southern provinces where a state of emergency declared in January 2004 has failed to prevent the deaths of some 1,700 people.

Moreover, the concentration of wealth and political power in Thaksin's hands that once appealed to those who wanted strong government also enabled him to undermine the institutions intended to provide constitutional checks to executive power and preserve the integrity of Thai democracy. When Thaksin called a snap election in April to try to renew his electoral mandate and discredit street protests against him, opposition parties boycotted the poll and Thailand's supreme court later nullified the result.

But there remained an awkward paradox for Thaksin's foes. For all the criticism aimed at Thaksin by mainly urban and educated Thais, he was still an elected prime minister with a pro-poor agenda that won him mass support in rural areas. Nurtured by populist spending policies and cash handouts, Thaksin looked well placed to win any election, fair or foul.

And that may have been his undoing. In recent months a wide spectrum of opposition parties, pro-democracy activists and close advisers to the king had put pressure on Thaksin to step aside as prime minister. The more the pressure mounted, the more he vacillated. In April he said he would not become prime minister even if he won a new election. In New York, a day before the coup, he said he was still undecided.

As Thaksin twisted and turned, the economy suffered and political tensions rose. Government business stalled, investors and consumers lost confidence, and economic growth projections started to fall. Instead of looking for compromise, Thaksin manoeuvred to place his loyalists in pivotal army posts. It also unveiled what it claimed was a plot by military leaders to blow Thaksin up with a car-bomb - a claim that few believed and many saw either as a bid for sympathy or a cover for a security crackdown by loyalists or both. Worst of all, some feared Thaksin was dragging Thailand into a struggle that would pit his popular support against popular veneration of the monarchy, an institution widely seen to be at the core of Thailand's national identity and stability.

Yet even against this background, Thais will regret that soldiers stepped in to take charge of national affairs. Thailand has now experienced eighteen coups since it switched from absolute monarchy to constitutional government in 1932 but fifteen years have elapsed since the last coup, and many Thais will question whether another was necessary.

Few expected Thaksin or his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party to win anything like the sweeping electoral endorsement of eighteen moths ago. Had Thaksin won the vote, some will argue, other avenues still remained open to persuade or pressure him that he could not remain as prime minister and to ensure proceedings leading to constitutional reform got underway.

As recently as March 2006, General Sonthi declared that "coups are a thing of the past". Six months on he has put Thailand's government administration under the supervision of its four regional army commanders. Thailand's pro-democracy activists are already making clear they do not see this as a durable solution. Sonthi's promise of elections by October 2007 suggests that he knows this too. The best prospect for Thailand's recovery from its crisis is if the army mean it.

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