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A Very Thai Coup: The Old Elite Strikes Back

Commentary, 20 September 2006
Thailand is now almost certain to experience a long period of instability. Pity the ordinary Thais. And watch for more negative developments throughout the South East Asian region.
Thailand coup (Courtesy AP)

Thailand’s military coup has removed from power a remarkable prime minister who has recently been mired in a variety of political dispute. Like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was a multi-millionaire, with an ardent desire to break up historic stereotypes about his country. Like Berlusconi, Thaksin captivated his people, but ultimately succeeded in alienating quite a few of them and lost his grip on power. But, unlike Italy, Thailand is now almost certain to experience a long period of instability. Pity the ordinary Thais. And watch for more negative developments throughout the South East Asian region.

Thaksin was a unique politician. He was not a member of the military establishment or the urban elite which has dominated Thailand for a century. He was not a confidant of the royal palace, where power was made and unmade. But he was very rich and successful, and he recreated Thai politics from scratch. His rise to power earlier this decade was phenomenal. His Thai Rak Thai party ('Thais Love Thais') came out of nowhere, but dominated the country’s parliament. He had a coterie of time-servers and other self-made men, some corrupt, other simply banal. And he was impulsive. But he lead efforts to improve the miserable lot of Thailand’s rural poor, and he became their idol. He was ultimately overthrown by the old elite which resented his policies, but which has no alternative on offer. To them, Thaksin Shinawatra was always just a plunderer of the local economy, for the benefit of his family and friends in big business.

Public anger exploded in January this year when his relatives sold off — tax-free — their $1.9 billion stake in Shin Corp to a Singapore state company. A string of mass rallies calling for his resignation followed, with retired general Chamlong Srimuang, his former political mentor who led a successful 1992 protest against Thailand’s last military government, leading the campaign. It quickly became clear that the ill-will went right to the top of the military and the establishment, as top royal adviser Prem Tinsulanonda, another general and former prime minister, launched a string of thinly veiled attacks. After an inconclusive snap election called in April in the hope of silencing his critics, Thaksin announced his departure from politics. But, in a move typical of his style, he then returned to power, although conceding the need for a new elections, which were due to be held (after a few postponements) this November.

But, after this long political paralysis, the old guard in the armed forces has now removed the 56-year-old former policeman, staging a bloodless coup while Thaksin was away at the United Nations in New York.

The Presidency of the European Union, currently held by Finland, issued a statement on Tuesday night condemning  'the take-over of power from the democratic government of Thailand'. Demanding that the military forces should 'stand back', Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen expressed Europe’s collective wish 'that Thailand will soon be able to return to democratic order'. This relatively mild posture was echoed by individual European governments. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said that her country is 'never happy' to see a military coup in any country. 'But we very much hope there will be peace and the situation will be resolved and that some peaceful way out of the problem will be determined,' she  added.  Meanwhile, all European governments refrained from asking their citizens to leave, advising them merely to keep away from public buildings or rallies. Flights between Europe and Thailand continue, and travel agents did not report any significant holiday cancellations.

A meeting with Army Chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin on Wednesday provided European diplomats in Bangkok with the first opportunity to probe the new Thai authorities. Britain, which has a special interest in the matter because of Mr Thaksin’s presence on its soil, asked whether the former prime minister would be allowed to return. General Sondhi’s reassurance that both Mr Thaksin and other members of his cabinet can go back since 'they have done no wrong' was seen as a welcome move. The Thai military junta evidently does not intend to stay for long: it has promised to draft a new constitution, paving the way for new elections and a return to civilian rule. Indeed, the military appear set to avoid serving in a government altogether: after meeting Thailand’s revered King on Tuesday night, they announced that a new interim administration will be in place in the next two weeks. So, the mild reaction of Western governments may be appropriate: recent Thai coups were never particularly bloody, and military rule did not last for long. Altogether, therefore, a small episode, followed by return to democracy and normality.


But, consider the following:

  1. Thailand’s current institutions – including the two chambers of parliament, some of the courts and the constitution – have been abolished. Recreating them is not a matter of weeks, but of many months. At the very best, the military-propped interim administration will stay in power until the spring of 2007, a not inconsiderable period of time.
  2. Meanwhile, the economy will suffer. Foreign investors are bound to be scared by such instability, particularly since there are many other Asian countries competing for their attention. Thailand has already missed an opportunity to conclude a free trade agreement with the US which was ready for signature this April, largely because of the political turmoil. And it has still not adopted the budget for 2007. It stretches credulity to assume that an interim administration – and one influenced by the military – will take any tough economic decisions. It is equally fanciful to assume that it will eliminate corruption.
  3. Thailand’s current leaders have hinted at the possibility of taking measures against Thaksin’s allegedly corrupt practices. If they start investigating the sale of his Shin Corporation to a Singapore investment arm, they will not only risk a much bigger political dispute with Singapore, but will also scare off other investors.
  4. Thailand has experienced a terror campaign in its southern provinces, where a Muslim ethnic minority resides. Thaksin has failed to quell this problem; indeed, he has made it worse, by imposing frequent changes of military commanders, and by favouring his old police friends at the expense of tried and tested military personnel. Presumably, the military will now resume control in the provinces. Yet there is no indication that it will do better against the insurgents.
  5. Even if a new constitution is drafted, and even if there is a consensus about the shaping of the two parliamentary chambers, there is no political party in Thailand which can hope to gain a workable parliamentary majority. The future belongs to coalition governments, the unstable arrangements which have ruled Thailand for decades, and usually not to the benefit of its ordinary people.
  6. Thaksin – whether in London where he currently resides or back in Thailand – will remain a formidable force to be reckoned with. His brooding presence will cast a shadow on Thai politics for many years to come, contributing to the air of instability.
  7. The Thai King, although in apparently good health, is not young. A potential royal succession, coupled with the current instability, remains a nightmare scenario, but not one which can be completely ruled out.
  8. The Thai military coup can encourage other militaries – particularly in the Philippines or, indeed, even in Turkey – to consider their own interventions. Of course, each country faces different circumstances and experiences different political pressures. Nevertheless, the reappearance of tanks on the streets of a civilised, hitherto peaceful and stable Asian capital, will do no good to the prospects for democracy in Asia or beyond.
  9. Finally, as Thailand is convulsed by its internal problems, it will not be able to play its destined role in Asia, as one of the key countries fashioning policies towards neighbouring Burma, as an important ally of the US and as a force for regional stability.

The people of Thailand clearly deserved better than a military coup. But, at least for the foreseeable future, a quasi-military rule with the trapping of elections and a weak government is all they are likely to get.

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute

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