Gunpoint Democracy

Some Thais are beginning to ask if their new bosses are going to be the same as the old bosses


Five weeks after many of Bangkok's academics, editorialists and opposition politicians cheered the generals who ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, some are starting to have second thoughts about the ability of the generals who engineered the coup to reintroduce democracy.

Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister and chief adviser to the longstanding Democrat party, complained this week that the junta-appointed government "appears to belittle the reason the military seized power in the first place," and said it needed to do more to root out what he called "Thaksinocracy."

The Nation, a vehemently anti-Thaksin English-language daily, echoed those sentiments in a Wednesday editorial headlined "No real action seen as yet."

"We can only conclude the effort to stage a military coup to usurp power is a lot less strenuous than the job of running the country and maintaining power," it said. "The Surayud [Chulanont] government must sit down to think hard about its priorities and then work on them. Time is running out."

While that may seem like an obvious conclusion to those outside of Bangkok, it's a notable admission here given the general euphoria that greeted the coup makers immediately after September 19. After months of branding the twice-elected Thaksin a dictator on par with the likes of Indonesia's Suharto, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and even Adolph Hitler, the Bangkok intelligentsia is now caught in a bind.

Although the generals have thus far restrained themselves from cracking down on dissent, increased public criticism may force them to take action eventually. And since the generals have no mandate from the people or fear of immediate legal reprimand, some worry the country is heading towards another incident similar to Black May—the ugly 1992 episode in which government soldiers killed pro-democracy protestors.

"Just like now, in the first weeks and months after the 1991 coup the generals had gotten so much popularity from the people," said Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor at Thammasat University. "But they lost that popularity in one year. Now it is not 1991, but 2006. The 15 years in between were not wasted; Thailand has developed as a democracy. So if the coup group doesn't care about democracy, then they will lose popularity much faster now than in 1991."

In its first month, the self-styled Council for National Security imposed and extended martial law, drafted an interim constitution that gave the military immense powers, bullied media organizations into self-censorship and banned political activity. But those actions seemed to trouble diplomats, foreign journalists and a small group of leftist academics and students far more than the so-called “democracy” advocates who had been clamoring for Thaksin’s scalp.

The tipping point for them appeared to be the formation of the National Legislative Assembly, a 250-member appointed legislative body comprising mostly military men and others loyal to the royalist factions that initiated the coup. It officially started work on Tuesday, after Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, sitting in for the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, gave the body a royal blessing at the end of last week.

At first, the complaints about the body were merely that it did not represent the people -- a seemingly self-evident conclusion given that the generals appointed all the members. Now anti-Thaksin elements are furious that the appointed body elected Meechai Ruchupan, a former legal adviser to the ousted premier, as its speaker.

"This will cause an increase in opposition because people see Meechai as very conservative and undemocratic, which you can see from his track record," said Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the ruling junta. "It fits in with the appointment of a general as prime minister who led troops into the Royal Hotel in 1992 to crack down on protestors. This is all par for the course."

Meechai is symbolically important because he is a symbol of the similarities between last month's putsch and the 1991 coup that led to Black May. Fifteen years ago, the public supported General Suchinda Kraprayoon when he ousted Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, who was seen as corrupt and ineffective. Meechai served as deputy prime minister in Suchinda's ill-fated government.

When massive public protests called for Suchinda to step down, government soldiers fired on the crowds, killing at least 52 and injuring hundreds more in what became known as Black May. The bloodshed only stopped after the king reprimanded Suchinda and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang as they lay prostrate before the throne in an extraordinary televised meeting.

Suchinda immediately resigned and Meechai became acting prime minister for 17 days until the king appointed Anand Panyarachun to take over on June 10, 1992. Anand served until Chuan and the Democrats won an election later that year, and then went on to oversee the drafting of the 1997 constitution, which the generals discarded on the night they deposed Thaksin.

Meechai had been a legal adviser to Thaksin's government, but very publicly parted ways after Thaksin stated that "highly influential" individuals were trying to overthrow his government through undemocratic means. Many saw this comment as a reference to Prem Tinsulanonda, the former prime minister and the king's top aide, and other members of the royal privy council.

Meechai took things a step further and declared that Thaksin's statement was actually directed at King Bhumibol—a claim subject to lese-majeste charges. At the time, many saw Meechai as a proxy for Prem, the privy council president who The Nation called the "godfather" of the junta.

Immediately after the generals rolled into Bangkok, Meechai helped them draft an interim constitution that gave the military a large role. Now as NLA speaker, he will oversee the drafting of the next constitution, prompting some to fear that the liberal gains enshrined in the 1997 charter will be rolled back in favor of a more conservative system that defers power to appointed bodies.

Although many in Bangkok question Meechai's credentials, Prem applauded the selection. He called Meechai an "ace legal expert" who would make a "good president" of the NLA, according to the Bangkok Post.

With Meechai in place, the process of drafting a permanent constitution will soon begin. In the meantime, the generals must figure out what to do with Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai party he founded in 1998.

A Thaksin adviser announced this week that the ousted premier would return once martial law is lifted. The generals have confusingly defended the extension of martial law, claiming that unspecified "political undercurrents" could still pose some sort of threat.

As the generals stall for time, many are hoping the junta-appointed Assets Examination Committee, which is investigating corruption allegations against Thaksin's administration, will come up with some hard evidence to indict the populist strongman. But so far it's unclear what the investigators have found.

"The corruption charges look as if they are easy to bring up in the local media, but extremely difficult to put into the judicial system," The Nation lamented in its Wednesday editorial.

The junta has taken some steps to demonize Thaksin's economic policies by calling for the use of the "sufficiency economy," a philosophy created by the king that calls for moderation and stability. Although this initially worried foreign investors, many now see it simply as an effort to re-brand many of Thaksin's initiatives.

The appointed government of Prime Minister Surayud decided to let the next government deal with Thaksin's more controversial agenda items, including the privatization of state-owned enterprises and free-trade agreements. It also still remains to be seen if a new junta-appointed court will actually dissolve the Thai Rak Thai party for election fraud stemming from polls held in April—a move that some fear could stir up Thaksin's core rural supporters.

The brass hats must walk a fine line. If Thaksin goes free, Thai Rak Thai is allowed to exist, and the new constitution is seen as less democratic than the old one, the generals could be in trouble from many different sides. Thaksin supporters and left-wingers are calling on the junta to ease its tight grip on civil liberties, while Thaksin's opponents want the old regime strung up in the public square, so to speak, even though it may be difficult to get the goods on the former PM.

How the generals balance the demands placed on them will go a long way towards determining if another series of significant protests develop. With Prem and company openly supporting the coup group—a tacit royal nod of approval—the situation will likely stay under control in the near term. Thais love their king and if they believe his guys are supporting the new order they will give it time.

But the more conservative the new military leaders become, the more their current supporters in the Bangkok middle class will start to fear that the generals aren't really democratic after all. Though it's too early to say whether history will repeat itself, the similarities between now and then are increasing by the day.

"I hope it doesn't come to violence like in 1992," said Giles. "But we are heading down an authoritarian road."

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