Thailand: No Elections for a Year
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The Thai military says a civilian leader will be appointed within the next two weeks, insisting it had not seized power for the military. The baht and the business community stumbled momentarily but then largely recovered Wednesday as martial law was imposed across the nation, with tanks and armed troops positioned throughout Bangkok.
Army generals took charge of provinces, particularly in the north, or Isaarn, the seat of Thaksin’s power base. Almost everyone from the country’s top intelligentsia to rural peasants (who still believe Thaksin was a good prime minister) appeared to be accepting the fate drawn for them by their new military leaders.
The perception by many that the coup was backed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej staved off much of the possible opposition among Thaksin’s supporter. People in the capital posed for pictures with troops and tanks. Some brought soldiers cold drinks and flowers. With Thaksin having made the injudicious decision to fly to New York to address the United Nations in New York amid rising coup rumors and tension, military forces took over Government House (the Prime Minister’s office), sacked both houses of parliament, the constitutional court and the voided country’s 10-year old constitution.
The leader of the coup and the the so-called Administrative Reform Council (ARC), Royal Thai Army Commander Gen Sonthi Boonyaratakalin, told reporters in Bangkok Wednesday that new elections would be held within a year, after a fresh constitution has been drafted by a new national assembly. Almost everyone here at present seems to agree with them. Military and police commanders who led the coup addressed the nation through a televised statement aired across all channels Wednesday morning in which Gen Sonthi assured the Thai public that they were acting to defend the nation’s constitutional democracy with the Thai king as its head of state. Following the address, television stations that had been taken over by the military late Tuesday night returned to normal programming. Speaking from New York late Wednesday, Thaksin said Tuesday’s military takeover came as a complete surprise to him. “I didn’t expect that this will happen. I came here as prime minister but left as an unemployed man,” Thaksin was reported as saying on the Nation newspaper website.
Gen Sonthi said Thaksin and his former ministers were free to return to the country but may have to face charges of corruption. The whereabouts of the rest of the sacked cabinet was not immediately clear yesterday, but it appeared that the majority were overseas in Europe and Asia. Many left hastily, grabbing late flights Tuesday night as the coup gathered steam. Rumors have been circulating since Tuesday night that key figures including former Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit had been detained by the military. The coup, the country’s first in 15 years, followed months of political turmoil and anti-Thaksin street demonstrations. The country had been administered by a caretaker government since February when the embattled prime minister dissolved parliament and called early elections just one year after his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party won a landslide victory and the largest parliamentary majority in Thai history. The April elections were won by Thaksin’s party, but never accepted publicly. After them, King Bhumibol called on the courts to “clean up the mess” left by the failed vote. The military has reportedly placed troops in areas around the country where Thaksin has strong support including Chiang Mai in the north, but there was no sign of any real opposition to the coup yesterday. Thaksin’s attempt to retain control of the nation from New York were stunted when his televised address, aired only on government run Channel 9 on Tuesday night, was cut short by the military. However, local media reported some minor opposition, with a number of demonstrators being arrested under martial law regulations banning congregations of more than six people. Prachathai News Online reported that a small number of demonstrators were arrested after gathering at Democracy Monument not far from Government House. The demonstrators were reportedly holding up a banner saying they were fasting as a protest against the “destroyers of democracy.”
The international community however, has expressed its concern over the events, describing the coup as a blow to what was previously seen as a leading democracy in the region. The US State Department said it hoped “The Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law,” and that it was uneasy about the developments here. However, Thailand’s closer antipodean neighbors were stronger in their condemnation of the coup, with Australia saying it was concerned about seeing democracy “destroyed” and New Zealand’s prime minister Helen Clark outright condemning the military takeover.
Thailand’s closer ASEAN neighbors also expressed their concerns. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said in a statement that Indonesia hoped “democratic principles, important elements in the ASEAN community that have been agreed together, will remain enforced.” Malaysia and the Philippines also expressed their concern. But despite international condemnation the mood in Thailand was remarkably spirited in Bangkok yesterday, with most people seemingly welcoming a regime change that many said had not come as much of a surprise. “Today is a better day than yesterday,” said 56-year-old Oo, a small business owner who lives in the northern suburbs of Bangkok. “I think it is a good thing.
Thaksin has done so many bad things and Gen Sonthi had to change the management to make the situation better.” Former Foreign Minister and deputy Democrat party member Surin Pitsuwan said the coup was unfortunate but somewhat inevitable, and said it was important to now look forward to strengthening Thailand’s democratic institutions over the coming interim period. “We cannot condone military takeovers, I think we have tried very hard in the past to avoid this but all avenues of change and transformation and checks and balances have been corrupted,” Surin said in an interview on BBC World last night. “It is very, very regrettable that we have to come to this point because the process had not been allowed to work, because the former prime minister had taken all the substance out of the democracy.” The former Thai foreign minister said it was a shame that Thailand had seemingly once again been dragged back into a past in which military coups were frequent. “The impression in our minds is: How many times do we have to go through this? We have tried as democrats to avoid this and tried to change the problems through the political process, but we have failed.”
In other camps, Sondhi Limthongkul, a core leader of the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), was greeted by dozens of supporters at his Baan Phra Arthit headquarters in Bangkok yesterday. Many of them had traveled through the night from around the country to share in the celebrations of what they viewed as a victory of their protests over the past months. Sondhi said the sacking of the government had left him “in peace,” but that he had not wanted the political battle to end in this manner. “I didn’t want it to happen like this, but the military say it is only a temporary measure to ensure that a process of reforms can take place,” Sondhi told the Asia Sentinel. “They say it may take a year or more to institute all the reforms, I hope it doesn’t take too long but I am able to accept that we may have to wait up to a year for new elections.” Sondhi told an excited gathering of followers in the plush courtyard of his offices in Bangkok that “his show would go on” and that he would continue his weekly political talk show, Thailand Weekly.
Sondhi took his anti-Thaksin campaign on the road after the government axed the show from the airwaves in October 2005 for allegedly referring to the King in a disrespectful manner. People across the country however, had mixed feelings about the future of their former prime minister, who was expected to arrive in England early Thursday where his daughter studies at university and his family have recently purchased a home.
While some say he should be forced into exile, others have said he should be allowed to return home. “He is a Thai person, his family are Thai, this is his country, he should be free to come back to the country if he wants, but never again as prime minister because of all the conflicts and problems he created,” said Lai, a 35-year-old farmer from a small village in Sisaket province, a Thaksin stronghold in the northeastern Isarn area of the country.
Thaksin is still thought to have wide support in rural areas in the north and northeast where his populist policies have won him loyal voters. Lai, who has no television in her home, said she first heard the news early Wednesday morning when local police called a meeting in the road and told everyone that the children didn’t have to school and that the government had been overthrown. “At first I was shocked and surprised,” she said. “I liked Thaksin but I think it is a good thing for Thailand because it will stop the conflict within our country,” Lai said from her village close to the Cambodian border, and miles away from the action taking place in Bangkok. “All politicians are corrupt, but the difference with Thaksin was that he gave some of the money he got back to the people of Isarn. This is why we like him here.” As the dust began to settle on Thailand’s first day under the control of the its new military leaders Wednesday, many people remained hopeful that the military takeover would lead to a change for the better, and no signs of any formal opposition to the takeover could be seen.
But questions over the long-term effects of this latest coup have already arisen, and many outside observers say the use of a military force to oust the government has undoubtedly been a step backwards for a country that had been viewed as a beacon of democracy in the region.