Thailand: Whither Democracy?


John Funston

Thailand's 19 September coup was different from coups in the past. Not only was it peaceful and welcomed by Bangkok's middle class - that was true of the last coup in 1991. This time, however, it gained the backing of many who had staunch records as democrats. Included among its supporters were crusading journalists, former student leader Thirayuth Boonmi, academic Khien Theeravit, and son of the last prime minister deposed in a coup, Kraisak Choonhavan.

The Western media and governments condemned the coup. Thaksin, they argued, had been democratically elected three times, and the only legitimate way of deposing him was through the ballot box. (Most accounts glossed over the court annulment of the April election, and caretaker status of government since February.) Having seized power, the military could be relied on to entrench its position, a disaster for Thailand and an unfortunate example for Southeast Asian neighbours. A small number of Thais endorsed this view.

Many Thai democrats, however, argued that democracy was not defined by elections; it was also necessary to have the rule of law. Thaksin failed the second test - subverting freedom of the media, undermining the supposedly apolitical senate and 'independent institutions' set up to guard against executive excesses, over-riding regulations to promote friends and relatives, manipulating economic planning to benefit the businesses of his family and friends, and using both his personal fortune and state funds to subvert the law. Some argued that Thaksin's actions meant the coup was morally justified, while others accepted it as the lesser of two evils.

Those undertaking the coup - especially its leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin - were noted for their professionalism and loyalty to the monarch, rather than for political ambitions. Their initial pronouncements were reassuring, promising a quick restoration of civilian, democratic rule. But that restoration has proven far more problematic.

Coup leaders first raised doubts when they announced that the transition would take twelve months. Many were still ready to give coup leaders the benefit or the doubt, but it was certainly at the extreme end of the expected transition time - and a later comment that 17 months might be necessary heightened anxiety.

More disturbing, however, was the 39-article interim constitution, drafted by conservative lawyer Meechai Ruchuphan, implemented from the beginning of October. Instead of the expected simple arrangements for strengthening democracy by amending the existing constitution, it provided a complex and convoluted path to establish a new one, and left the coup group firmly in control for at least 12 months. The Council for Democratic Reform was to be reconstituted as the Council of National Security (CNS), with powers that enabled it to appoint and maintain dominance over the Prime Minister, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA).

The CNS has so far exercised these powers by appointing a Prime Minister (General [ret] Surayud Chulanont), and the NLA. Surayud's appointment did not go down well with the foreign media, who saw it as an attempt to perpetuate military influence. But in Thailand Surayud's reputation as a former army head and supreme commander who had acted to separate the military from politics stood him in good stead. He in turn appointed a cabinet of, mainly, respected if elderly retired public servants. To reassure the business community he appointed Bank of Thailand head, MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

The NLA was not so well received. 76 of its 242 members were retired or serving members of the military or police, and many other were current or retired public servants. Representatives of the rural poor were particularly under-represented. The subsequent election of Meechai as Speaker caused more concern - that also makes him head of the CDA, and potentially in a position to shape the new constitution.

The CNS has refused requests to end martial law, though in practice it has not enforced most of its powers, and given specific exemptions for some political meetings. It has promised to change policy towards the insurgency in the Muslim South, giving priority to peaceful strategies, but has moved slowly and just renewed the draconian emergency decree there for another three months.

There are two possible explanations for these developments. Either the CNS is maneouvring to perpetuate its own power, as its critics predicted, or it is taking preemptive action in case of opposition from Thaksin supporters. Thaksin still has many sympathisers, and their case has been strengthened by the coup group's failure thus far to produce hard evidence backing its claims of massive corruption and lèse majesté. This makes it imperative that the CNS move soon to shore up its commitment to democracy, or risk uniting opposition against it.

WATCHPOINT: The creation of a CDA, and its deliberations on a new constitution, will be a further indicator of CNS democratic plans.


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