Getting to Know You
A week after the Thai military shocked the world by forcibly removing the twice-elected Thaksin Shinawatra from power, the generals and the public are still feeling each other out.
For now, the junta appears to have the benefit of the doubt from the public at large. Many Thais saw the coup as necessary to break a seven-month political stalemate, even though a fresh election was only a month or two away. For sure, the quick endorsement by the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej bought the generals some time to burnish their image.
Still, some of those who pushed so vehemently for Thaksin’s ouster are ambivalent about the junta. On the one hand, they are happy to see their nemesis given the boot. On the other, they don’t want to be seen as supporting the forced ouster of a popularly elected government in a country where military rule was once the norm.
But Thaksin had so tied the democratic process up in knots of his own making that democracy advocates appear willing to support the junta as long as it sticks to its plan to return power to civilians in due course.
“Look,” said former Thai Foreign Minister and opposition politician Surin Pitsuwan, “there was no substance of democracy left under Thaksin. He had corrupted everything with money.”
Surin and many others say they are relieved that someone has stepped in with the power to reform Thaksin’s perceived corruption of the political system and to shepherd a return to normalcy.
The generals, though, used their first week in power to ban political activity, criminalize opposition to the junta and bully media outlets into practicing self-censorship. The regime’s attempt to instill public confidence by appointing prominent academics and former bureaucrats to several different advisory councils turned embarrassing when they forgot to notify them first, and several said they wouldn’t cooperate with the junta.
The generals can’t even decide what to call themselves; at first, they insisted that newspapers refer to them in full by the long-winded “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy.” Today they cut that in half, dropping the monarchy reference. The Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) explained that they did not want any “misunderstanding” about the role of the King, whom they insist was only notified of the coup after it was over and has no influence over their decisions.
With the name settled, the junta faces any number of decisions. Here is a quick rundown of the major questions now facing the country:
1. What will the interim Constitution say?
When the generals ousted Thaksin, they also scrapped the 1997 Constitution – mostly because it called for things that don’t mesh well with juntas, like elections, a National Assembly and independent watchdog bodies. The generals have completed a transitional constitution with 39 articles and plan to present it to King Bhumibol for endorsement over the weekend. Much shorter than the 1997 charter, which had 336 articles, the document gives the appointed government the authority to operate while a more complete constitution is drawn up over the next year. A rough translation of the interim charter, posted today on the website of the local English-language daily The Nation, reveals that the generals will still hold significant sway over the appointed cabinet.
The junta, or CDR, is to morph into the Council for National Security (CNS) after an interim prime minister is in place. This body, comprised of the putsch leaders, will coexist with the appointed cabinet in an unspecified advisory role. The coup leaders will appoint two other bodies: a legislature comprised of 250 people, and a 2,000-strong National Assembly that will oversee the drafting of the next constitution. This body will whittle itself down to 200 constitution drafters, and the CNS will choose 100 people out of that group who will then have six months to write the charter.
Both the cabinet and the CNS will then make sure the draft meets their approval before sending it to the public for a referendum a month later. The plan calls for full elections about a year from now. If for some reason the constitution drafters fail to meet the deadline, the CNS and the cabinet will pick one of the country’s 15 previous constitutions, amend it accordingly and promulgate it within a month.
Notably, the interim constitution guarantees “basic rights” but makes no mention of a free press, peaceful assembly or political activity – all suspended by the junta last week. Those are apparently gone, as Article 36 “provides legal validations for all orders and announcements” issued by the junta. And the generals also managed to absolve themselves of wrongdoing for ousting Thaksin by gunpoint: Article 37 “grants complete immunity for all actions to seize power” by the brass hats
2. Who will lead the interim government?
All kinds of names are flying around as to who will lead the new government. So far the two favorites appear to be former army commander Surayud Chulanont and former WTO chief Supachai Panitchpakdi. Other leading candidates include two court presidents, Charnchai Likhitjittha and Ackaratorn Chularat, who proved instrumental in voiding the boycotted April 2 election after King Bhumibol implored the courts to take action. The military regime said it will announce the interim prime minister after the king approves the interim Constitution, which will probably be Saturday or Sunday. The prime minister will then choose 35 ministers, ostensibly with a free hand.
Depending on who you ask, Surayud may be the favorite. For months prior to the coup, rumors flew that Surayud was set to become a royally appointed prime minister if Bhumibol had acted to oust Thaksin through the use of a vague clause allowing him to do so in the old Constitution – a move favored by some scholars and the Democrat Party six months ago. The coup made that debate irrelevant, but may have put Surayud in the driver’s seat.
But although he will likely prove a popular choice among the masses, his selection would inevitably reinforce the view that the military and the monarchy conspired to take Thaksin down. Surayud is also a privy councilor close to former prime minister and retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads the privy council and is seen as the king’s top aide. Coup leader Sonthi visited Prem the other day to discuss candidates for the premiership, and the 86-year-old senior statesman was “seen to be in a cheerful mood” upon hearing that Surayud’s candidacy was gaining momentum, the English-language daily Bangkok Post reported Wednesday.
It’s unclear if Prem, who is widely seen as the man pulling the strings, wants to invite more links between the palace and the coup. Surin was firm in saying that it would be unwise of Surayud to take the post because it would be tantamount to military rule. “Once you’re a general, you’re a general.” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are retired.”
This could get very tricky. A few days ago, a military spokesman gave the Foreign Ministry carte blanche to take “proactive action” against foreign correspondents who link Bhumibol, who is treated like a god in Thailand, to the military takeover. Surayud’s elevation to the premiership, given his ties to the palace, would surely bring hundreds of more stories that do so.
If the military wants to avoid such embarrassment and “misunderstanding,” Supachai, a member of the Democrat Party who is well respected internationally, would make for a better choice. It’s unclear how close he is to the privy council power brokers, although he did serve in Prem’s cabinet back in the 1980s.
“For Thais, Surayud is not such a bad choice,” says a Western diplomat based in Bangkok. “He will reassure the public that things are OK and everything is safe. But for the outside world, it won’t look great to have a military man in charge. And rabble rousers and journalists will make the connection with the monarchy.”
According to Surin, also a Democrat Party stalwart, Supachai will take the post if it is offered.
3. What will the interim government do?
The primary agenda of the next government will be to oversee political reforms and keep the economy running smoothly. The generals appointed Bank of Thailand Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula to head an economic committee, and already approved a budget for the next fiscal year. Prudent economic management will go a long way towards ensuring the credibility of the appointed government, as well as placating the poor rural masses who have come to depend on Thaksin’s populist loan schemes, debt forgiveness and cheap health care services. The junta issued an order to keep the 30-baht ($0.75) health care program and a village loan scheme in place – two planks of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party platform. Keeping the poor happy will help the new regime get through the next year without mass displays of dissent. More controversial issues, such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises and a pending free-trade deal with the US, will likely be shelved until an elected government is in place. Some analysts, however, note that an unelected junta presents a great opportunity to push through laws that would have a tough time getting through a representative parliament.
4. What will happen to Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai?
This is a big question. The junta justified its coup by citing rampant corruption in the government, and immediately set up a series of investigative panels to comb through the books of Thaksin and his associates. If any formal charges are levied, the military leaders will ask Britain, where Thaksin is currently sitting in exile, to extradite the former premier. It’s unclear if that will happen, as England has yet to formally recognize the junta, but certainly an arrest warrant won’t bode well for Thaksin’s political future.
Without Thaksin, Thai Rak Thai may whither away – and the political landscape will change dramatically. The eight-year-old party, which translates into Thais Love Thais, proved the most successful in the country’s history. After coming into power in 2001, the party won a record 19 million votes in 2005. Even after months of street protests, TRT won 16 million votes in the boycotted April 2 election – more than half of what the hapless Democrat Party won in 2005. Despite its domination, the party was essentially a one-man show, largely held together by Thaksin’s personal popularity and money. Many disparate factions joined Thaksin’s team simply to share in the spoils of victory. Already some MPs have said they would join other parties in the next election, and the Democrats may be able to woo a large number of them. If Thaksin ends up in jail, or finds himself in more permanent exile, it’s unclear if his deputies will try to build upon TRT’s brand, or if the party will be seen as damaged goods. “Thai Rak Thai’s future depends on how the junta treats Thaksin,” says Somchai Pakapatwiwat, a political scientist at Thammasat University. “Without Thaksin, the party will gradually dissolve.”
Even so, whether Thaksin will ever really go away remains to be seen. At 57, he is 21 years younger than Bhumibol, and 29 years younger than Prem. “He can’t be counted out,” says Surin. “He has a lot of money and a lot of people in place.”
Thaksin’s popularity in rural areas may only grow, particularly if he is allowed back in the country to pursue charity and development work. “Thaksin has to be passive now,” says a TRT member speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s physically fit. He has money and people who support him. Not everything can require a quick fix. There is also the long game to think about.”
5. Will the military really go away?
This remains to be seen. The junta leaders appear to be scrambling to set up a civilian government, but they will retain significant power during the next year. The CNS ensures that the civilian government will operate in the shadow of the coup leaders. The lines between the civilian government, the military and the palace could get even blurrier.
So far, people don’t seem to mind so much. Many seasoned political observers point out the differences between this coup and the last one fifteen years ago. That 1991 seizure, they say, was meant to reinstate the power of the military. General Suchinda Kraprayoon was initially cheered for ousting the corrupt government of Chatichai Choonhavan. But then he broke a promise to step aside and accepted the premiership in 1992, which led to bloody street protests and a televised intervention by Bhumibol to restore the peace.
This time around, democracy advocates note that the generals have no intention to take control. Indeed, they see the coup group as reluctant heroes. “The military didn’t want to act,” this line of thinking goes, “but they had to because there was simply no way out.” Time will tell if the coup actually marks a paradoxical step forward for democratic institutions, or whether it simply reinforces the military-monarchy alliance of power that ruled Thailand for much of the past 50 years.
For some, that question shouldn’t even be asked. Several very small groups have held protests at university campuses in Bangkok over the past few days to speak out against military intervention into politics. They claim the junta has trampled upon the memories of hundreds of pro-democracy students killed by the army on October 14, 1973 – and they are furious that many who lived through the episode are now playing ball with the generals.
“The younger people are shaming the October generation,” says Ji Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University who has helped organize a series of protests against the coup. “In opposing Thaksin, some people have lost sight of what it means to be a democracy, where you actually have to deal with the 16 million people who voted for Thaksin.”
There is a certain resignation, however, among political realists who are hoping for the best. “They will continue to be a watchdog,” Surin says of the generals. “Good or bad is not the issue. They have to make sure things turn out the way they intended.”