Thailand: Military Coup as Means to Further Democracy?


Deborah Johnson

On the evening on Tuesday 19 September Army Commander-in-Chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin (also spelt Boonyaratglin) orchestrated a bloodless coup d'etat which saw the ousting of caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the abolition of the Cabinet and Parliament, the suspension of Thailand's Constitution as drafted in 1997 and the imposition of martial law. This was undertaken with royal support in order to resolve the political stalemate and ostensibly to prevent Thaksin from returning to power either via intervention following possible public disorder or via democratic election - and thereby reasserting his hold over the country under the banners of the 'public good' and 'democracy'. The ruling body set up immediately following the coup, the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDR), as its name suggests, also asserted its support of democracy for Thailand proclaiming its intent to return the country to civilian rule within two weeks and to hold elections by October 2007.

Despite the support expressed for democracy by the various parties, Thai history has indicated that the roadway to that end can be very bumpy. (This is the 18th successful coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.) Despite the overwhelming endorsement by the electorate of Thaksin's leadership in the second of two consecutive election victories - his Thai Rak Thai Party won 377 of 500 parliamentary seats in the February 2005 general election - aspects of Thaksin's popularist and 'democratic' leadership have stirred some unease. These have included his 'war on drugs' in which some 2000 people died; his controversial handling of the violence in the south in which almost 2000 people have died since January 2004; his circumscription of media freedoms; the alleged conflict of interests, cronyism and corruption associated with his leadership and government. Thaksin came under increasing pressure after his family in January 2006 sold their 49.59 per cent interest in Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in a tax-free transfer which led also to allegations of insider trading and corrupt practice. Though Thaksin won the snap 2 April election he called on 24 February, an opposition boycott of the election denied Thaksin the political legitimacy he was seeking. The election was finally declared invalid on 8 May by the Constitutional Court. Thaksin became caretaker prime minister until further elections - scheduled for 15 October 2006 - could be held.

Reaction from the international community has been generally to condemn the coup and to encourage a return to democracy sooner rather than later. The USA has cut off US$24 million in military assistance to Thailand until such a time as democracy is restored. Nonetheless, coup leader General Sonthi has indicated that elections will be held only in October 2007. This is to give the interim Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont (appointed 1 October) and his cabinet (yet to be appointed at the time of writing) the time to secure the situation against any counter-coups by pro-Thaksin elements and to re-lay the ground rules upon which democracy is to operate. This will include investigation of Thaksin, his family, former Cabinet colleagues and allies for corrupt practice and tax evasion; and, the redrafting of the constitution so as to ensure it is 'despot-proofed' and protects basic human rights and freedoms.

The challenges faced will not be insignificant. In the next 12 months the interim administration must seek to heal the divides in Thailand - between the Buddhist north and centre and the Muslim south; between the rural poor (which has been largely pro-Thaksin) and the urban (politically disaffected) middle class; between the old royalist (military and bureaucratic) elites and the newer entrepreneurial elites. It must focus on social and political reforms while ensuring a stable environment for economic investment. Reforms must be done in a way that will not alienate the Thai general public which expects open and accountable governance and greater levels of public participation than was the case under the increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the Thaksin regime. And all this must also be done in the glare of international scrutiny.

While Gen Surayud has impeccable credentials to take on the role of interim prime minister - a former army commander-in-chief who implemented reforms in the military so as to emphasise professionalism and keep officers out of politics; a senior royal adviser as a member of His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej's Privy Council; a man of modest demeanor with a reputation for incorruptibility and quiet diplomacy - concerns have been raised concerning the independence of his interim government from military interference. The new interim constitution approved by the King and announced on 1 October gives General Sonthi power to remove Prime Minister Surayud and his Cabinet, to approve the selection of a National Assembly speaker and to have the final say over the committee that will write the next constitution. To assuage concerns regarding possible military interference, General Sonthi has indicated that the coup leaders' military council (renamed the Council for National Security (CNS)) will play a role only in security matters.

Clearly, the current 'road map' to democracy must pass through some tricky terrain.

WATCHPOINT: Whether or not the military coup will have ultimately served to further democracy or deny it will depend on the wisdom and goodwill of those to whom interim leadership has been entrusted and the confidence they can instil in the various segments of the Thai public and the international community.


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