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Thailand's high-stakes gamble

Nick Cumming-Bruce
8 October 2006

Outside the ornate offices of Thailand's prime minister, little evidence of political turmoil remains. The tanks that rumbled into place around it for the 19 September 2006 coup ousting caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have pulled back to their barracks. The generals that staged it handed responsibility for government back to a civilian prime minister within their self-imposed two week deadline. On Monday 9 October, he unveiled a cabinet of technocrats.

Moralising in Washington and Canberra about the setback to democracy has attracted little interest from most urban Thais who saw nothing very democratic in Thaksin's intolerance of criticism, his emasculation of all constitutional checks on his authority, his disregard for electoral laws and apparent contempt for human rights. Indeed, Thai analysts shared the concern that Thaksin's manoeuvres to keep power threatened to drag the country into violent clashes between his critics and supporters.

 

Since the coup, not a shot has been fired in anger and no blood shed. Early rumbles of discontent from Bangkok university campuses over the imposition of martial law and curbs on the media have so far stayed there. The stock market and currency are stable and Thai newspapers in the past week have pictured the new prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, engaged on nothing more sensitive than inspecting flood control measures in Bangkok suburbs. No hint there of the difficult year that lies ahead trying to find a political formula that can put Thailand on a road to stability.

For Thailand's eighteenth coup since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 was not just about the egregious abuses of the ousted prime minister or the interests of the generals who threw him out. It also arose from a tectonic clash between Thailand's traditional elite and an ambitions tycoon wielding a potent combination of financial muscle and unprecedented popular appeal among long neglected rural poor.

In six decades on the throne King Bhumibol Adulyadej has restored the prestige and discreet power of the monarchy as a widely revered institution and the moral compass of the nation. Thaksin, the first Thai politician to build a mass base, appeared willing to challenge that pre-eminence in his battle for political mastery. And the battle may be far from over. "The situation is still volatile," says Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political analyst and lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "The next six months will be crucial."

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 by Nick Cumming-Bruce:

"Thailand: a coup for democracy?"
(20 September 2006)

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)

A tightrope walk

From exile in London, Thaksin appears to have backed down. In early October he faxed his resignation as leader of Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), the party he founded in 1998 and, with lavish financing, turned into a political juggernaut that totally dominated Thai politics. Its populist policies changed the nature of Thailand's hitherto personality-led politics. At its peak, after elections in 2005, it controlled 375 of 500 seats in parliament, the first party in modern Thai history to win an absolute majority. Now it appears in disarray.

Months before the coup, widening factional rifts within Thai Rak Thai left it vulnerable to defections. Since the military stepped in, scores of party executives and members have quit. To make matters worse, the party is awaiting the outcome of legal action that could result in the party being dissolved. But Somjai, for one, dismisses the recent Thai newspaper headlines suggesting Thaksin had "thrown in the towel" and his party had become a spent force.

"Thaksin will not yield easily, it's a tactical move," Somjai insists. The billionaire tycoon still has extensive networks of connections in the police, army and business. Moreover, Thai Rak Thai has a popular constituency that will not disappear overnight. Even if the party is dissolved, Somjai argues, core elements can still come together under another name.

That leaves prime minister Surayud and the generals behind him walking a tightrope trying to balance the need to consolidate its authority, keep pro-Thaksin groups at bay and maintain order. At the same time they will have to satisfy the expectations of pro-democracy and civil-society groups to that the government will soon lift curbs on the media and restore freedoms of political assembly and debate and get on with the business of managing the economy while steering the country back to constitutional government.

"It's a big gamble for the military, it's a big gamble for Surayud and it's a big gamble for the palace," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

It is also a balancing act that will have to be performed by an ex-soldier with no track record in politics. Surayud, a 63-year old former army commander brings some valuable assets to the task. He is generally well regarded for his honesty and, paradoxically, won respect as army boss for his efforts to professionalise the military and separate it from politics. Coups, he always insisted, were a thing of the past. Yet he also has close ties to both the leader of the coup, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, and to the palace. Still, "the fact that he is not politically seasoned is a drawback," says Thitinan.

The honeymoon for new governments in Thailand is usually short and the potential for disillusion with the coup is already there. Although the generals' Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) handed government back to a civilian, it has not pulled back from politics. On the contrary, the interim constitution unveiled at the same time as the appointment of the new prime minister gives the military the whip hand. "The interim constitution does nothing to address institutional weaknesses in Thailand's governance structures," New York-based Human Rights Watch commented. "Instead of strengthening the independence of key institutions, it allows the (military) to retain control over the government and all of its agencies."

No time to lose

For the moment, Surayud has struck a conciliatory note. In contrast to Thaksin’s belligerent approach, coup leader General Sonthi looks intent on pursuing negotiations with groups involved in insurgency in the mainly Muslim south and Surayud has given a Muslim, Aree Wongaraya, the powerful and crucially important interior portfolio. His government will place "people's happiness" above the economy, he said on taking office. His cabinet includes mainly technocrats and bureaucrats, including two deputy prime ministers with a strong background in finance to handle key economic portfolios. Officials close to the CDR have dispelled rumours the new government would do away with subsidised healthcare and other populist measures initiated by Thaksin. But contentious issues are already demanding action.

One of the first, and an important early test of Surayud's authority, will be how long the government keeps martial law that has been in force since the coup. Army bosses seem reluctant to relinquish the special powers it gives them. "If martial law is lifted too soon there could be problems," coup leader General Sonthi said on 4 October. Hitherto, there has been little public protest against it, but civil society forces are restless, says Thitinan, "they are not going to stay passive for long." A Thai NGO, the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, which challenged Thaksin's attempts to intimidate the press, has called a protest this week against the military's action shutting down some local radio stations and websites and close monitoring of the press.

The military also has the power to appoint a 250-strong assembly to act as a legislature, and 1,000 members of a national convention drawn from all sectors will nominate members of a committee with the task of drafting a new constitution - Thailand's sixteenth constitution in the past seventy-four years. The generals have allowed about eight months for the process before the new charter is put to the vote in a referendum and, assuming it is endorsed, elections are held for a new government within a year of the coup.

It would represent a challenging schedule for any government and Thailand's prospects of finding lasting stability are riding on the result. Thailand's last (1997) constitution, torn up by the coup, was the first to be drawn up in a democratic process that intended to create the durable legal framework and institutions to sustain democratic rule. With King Bhumibol approaching 80 years of age and in poor health, the need for such a charter is a matter of some urgency.

But for many Thais, a more immediate test of the interim government will be the speed and effectiveness with which it investigates alleged corruption under Thaksin - one of the reasons given to justify the coup. Nor is this just a matter of good governance. "There is a growing consensus that unless drastic action is taken now to uproot what remains of Thaksin's negative influence on Thai politics," an editorial in the Nation newspaper warned, "the country's destiny as a self-sustaining democracy may not be secure."

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