Thailand’s Uncharted Waters

The 2nd year after the Sept 19 coup brings more uncertainty



HTMS Chakri NaruebetThe
year that has passed since royalist factions of the armed forces
ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra by force September 19, 2006,
has been fairly predictable.

After
tossing out the government in a bloodless coup on a rainy Tuesday
night that brought Thailand’s tradition of military rule back
into focus, the junta also voided the constitution and the
constitutional court.

With
strong public support, especially the middle classes and the rich on
Bangkok, the junta installed a government of the elite, drafted a new
constitution weakening political parties and appointed a new court
that ended up dissolving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and banning
its leaders from politics for five years. It created an investigative
body to comb through allegations of Thaksin's corruption and
misdeeds, which ended up freezing most of the $2 billion in proceeds
from his family's controversial sale of the giant telecom company
Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in January 2006.

The
generals finally secured a couple of arrest warrants for Thaksin and
will ask Britain to extradite the deposed premier to face trial in
Thailand – a request that will most likely be rejected.

The
biggest surprises were the government's economic miscues, which left
the business community, local and foreign, confused and frustrated.
In addition, the strong "no" vote on the constitutional
referendum in the depressed northeast of the country seemed also to
show that Thaksin retains strong support among the poor.

The
army leaders claimed the putsch was necessary because Thaksin had
divided the country, compromised independent agencies, insulted the
king and committed widespread corruption. A year later, the country
is still harshly divided between urban elites and the rural poor,
independent agencies are compromised junta allies, lese-majeste
charges against Thaksin have been dropped and few smoking guns have
been found regarding corruption – meaning that either
Thaksin was cleaner than we have been told or just very careful.

Although
many Thais are looking forward to a new administration, the prospects
of a stable government after elections later this year are dim,
largely due to clauses in the new constitution that weaken the power
of politicians in favor of unelected judges, bureaucrats and
soldiers. Many analysts expect the next government to be short-lived
as Thailand returns to the revolving-door “buffet”
democracy of the 1990s.

 

What
to expect in Year Two? Here are some of the major question marks.


Can the Democrats
win the election scheduled for December 23?

With
Thaksin living comfortably in London as the new owner of the
Manchester City football club, the Democrats have a chance to return
to power after five years in opposition and one year on the
sidelines. The country's oldest political party was hammered in 2005,
picking up only 96 seats to Thai Rak Thai's 374. The prospect of
another defeat prompted the party to boycott the April 2006 election,
which led to the protracted political stalemate that opened the door
for the military to kick Thaksin out. The risky boycott
appeared to pay off, even though the next executive will be weakened
considerably.

The
election outcome remains far from certain, but the Democrats have
positioned themselves as frontrunners. Abhisit Vejjajiva, the party's
sophisticated 42-year-old Oxford-educated leader, has promised to
undo the military government's capital controls and stifling changes
to the Foreign Business Act, making him a favorite in the business
community. The party has also touted a "People's Agenda"
that contains many of the populist elements that proved so successful
for Thaksin, including universal health care and cheap loans. But
whether that agenda will allow the Democrats to win in Thaksin’s
northeastern base is up in the air. The party has recruited a number
of popular ex-senators that will bolster its presence in the poorer
region. The Democrats have always been popular among in the south and
among educated Bangkok residents.

A
Democrat win would surely put the country on a more stable footing.
In the aftermath of the coup, party leaders immediately blamed
Thaksin for leaving the military no choice but to act, and then told
followers to approve the junta's constitution in August. Although the
party has traditionally opposed military intervention in politics,
certainly it is on much better terms with the men in green than its
main rival, the People's Power party (PPP).


What would happen if PPP could form a government?
After
a military-installed court dissolved Thai Rak Thai in May, many
members joined the People's Power party. The party installed as its
leader right-wing firebrand Samak Sundaravej, who has vowed to fight
for Thaksin and provide amnesty for ex-TRT politicians banned for
five years from politics. Besides supporting Thaksin, Samak has also
been a strong critic of Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanond, the
former army general and prime minister highly respected in the
military and widely accused of orchestrating the coup.

A
win for Samak and PPP would be disastrous for the junta. After
military leaders spent a year denouncing Thaksin, it would put back
in power the people the military kicked out. That would raise the
possibility of yet another coup, especially if PPP opens
investigations into the junta leaders. Many analysts suspect it won't
come to that, however, as the bureaucracy, independent agencies and
courts are all working against PPP.

Will the army go
back to the barracks?

Coup
leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin must retire as army chief by the
end of this month, but so far he has not indicated what his plans
will be. Some speculate that he may run for parliament in an effort
to become prime minister. Back in 1992, bloody street protests
erupted when coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon became prime minister.
Political analysts say it will be easier for Sonthi to take a behind
the scenes role, possibly positioning himself as defense minister in
the next cabinet. This will ensure he can protect himself and the
extra 57 billion baht per year the generals awarded the armed forces
after the putsch.

The
next army chief has still not been announced but reports say General
Anupong Paochinda will likely take over. Anupong, a highly regarded
general with plenty of command experience, would be a steady hand
with three years to go before mandatory retirement. Unlike others in
the military, Anupong has passed up lucrative offers to chair state
enterprises, preferring to stick to military duties. While another
coup can never be ruled out, analysts say it would be more likely to
occur with General Saprang Kalayanamitr at the helm. Saprang, who
retires next year, is by the far the most outspoken in his hatred for
Thaksin.

No
matter which general is chosen, he must protect the army's political
interests and make some progress in thwarting the insurgency in the
southernmost Malay-Muslim provinces, where more than 2,500 have been
killed since January 2004.


Will Thaksin return?
This question dogged
the junta immediately after the coup, and they didn't seem to have an
answer. Right after the junta's investigative body froze Thaksin's
assets, Sonthi said "it may not be safe" for him to return
to fight the charges. The government has since reversed course after
issuing arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife, claiming now that
they can guarantee his safety. The government will file an
extradition request from England, where Thaksin is currently living,
but practically nobody thinks Britain will hand him over to the
Thais.

The
increasingly powerful political role of judges makes a trial risky
for Thaksin. Judges have become intertwined in politics ever since
King Bhumibol Adulyadej told them in April 2006 to solve the
country's problems. Immediately afterward, top judges held an
unprecedented extra-constitutional forum, and the courts quickly
nullified the April 2006 election. Then in subsequent decisions that
ignored most Thai legal norms, the judges tossed the old Election
Commission in jail, dissolved Thai Rak Thai and enforced an ex post
facto junta order to ban the party's leaders from politics for five
years.

The
new constitution gives the judges even more power, which is
frightening given the judiciary's track record of bowing to the
powers that be. Indeed, the judiciary could have prevented this
entire mess if they had voted to convict Thaksin in an airtight
assets concealment case in 2001, which would have banned the
telecommunications tycoon from politics for five years. But the
courts sidestepped the rule of law in favor of Thaksin then, just as
they have during the past 18 months in favor of his opponents.


Will the palace face
new threats?

The
junta cited lese-majeste as one of the four top reasons for booting
out Thaksin. Prior to the putsch, Thaksin entered a war of words with
Prem, the king’s top adviser, even warning at one point that
“influential people” close to the monarch were trying to
topple him. At the same time, Prem told soldiers to be loyal to the
king instead of the government, giving a de facto green light for the
coup.

After
the coup, the military chose retired General Surayud Chulanont, a
member of Bhumibol’s advisory council, as prime minister. But
even his royal glow could not shield the interim government from
criticism, and by January many were starting to question the
administration’s competence. Then the monarchy faced a series
of more open attacks, including anti-coup protests in front of Prem’s
house and an orchestrated rumor campaign against the royal family.

However,
the palace doesn’t want public debate on lese-majeste,
particularly the cases against Thaksin. In April, the Bangkok Post
reported that the lese-majeste charges were dropped because an aid to
the king told Surayud “the king would rather not see this kind
of case in court.”

Analysts say the amount
of criticism directed at the palace has reached new levels,
particularly in web forums. “Now you have the Internet and all
kinds of illegal criticism,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent
Buddhist scholar and serial lese-majeste offender. “This has
never happened before.”

The
police have attempted to fight back, reportedly
tossing anti-monarchy bloggers

in jail. Meanwhile, royal family attacks have gotten YouTube and
other video-sharing sites blocked, but new sites constantly pop up.

Also
ahead is the question of who will succeed the king. Thailand scholar
Duncan McCargo wrote earlier this year: “The greater calamity
of the succession lies ahead… The dhammaraja’s powers
are waning; in 2006 the royal whisper proved insufficient, and it
took a crude military intervention to remove Thaksin from office.”

 

Celebrations
for the king’s 80th birthday in December should keep
the country wearing yellow, symbolic for the day on which the king
was born. But more dissent seems almost inevitable in next year.

 

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