“There Wasn’t Any Choice”
When a military junta overthrows an elected government, the Western world typically declares a step back for democracy.
Not so in Thailand.
Many Thais benignly accepted Tuesday’s coup with a shrug, accepting the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the inevitable outcome of his public sparring with Bangkok’s royalist elite. Leading political analysts also defended the takeover, essentially claiming the ends justified the means.
“I’m reluctant to say it’s a setback for democracy,” said Prudhisan Jumbala, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, one of Bangkok’s top schools. “What Thaksin has done to democracy has been a setback. So the coup is a setback to counter a setback. It’s much more complex than just saying the coup is antidemocratic.”
While that more nuanced argument may find favor from those who pounded the pavement over the past year screaming for Thaksin to get out, foreigners typically don’t buy it. The European Union, US, Japan, Australia and other nations condemned yesterday’s coup and called for a restoration of the politically elected government.
“If it looks like a coup, smells like a coup and tastes like a coup, surely it’s a coup?” quipped an Asian diplomat. “I am surprised how the Thais are trying to justify this.”
And foreign diplomats are well aware of the role of the royal palace and powerful figures surrounding the king, which sealed Thaksin’s fate.
The arguments for removing Thaksin now were the same as they were when the billionaire businessman-cum-premier dissolved Parliament last February. Thaksin, his rivals claim, had dismantled a system of checks and balances and garnered such a huge majority in the legislature (through vote-buying, of course) that he was essentially unaccountable for his many sins.
There is some merit in that argument. Thaksin is not a genuine champion of democracy; he systematically dismantled independent bodies set up to hold politicians accountable, and was accused of using his powerful position for his own personal financial gain.
But, contrary to what the anti-Thaksin crowd will claim, he wasn’t all that bad. Just ask the 16 million Thais who voted for his ruling Thai Rak Thai party in April’s election after a vitriolic street campaign calling for his ouster—more than double what the main opposition party received in the 2005.
And contrary to the mantra repeated by generals and anti-Thaksin crusaders that the system was broken beyond repair—making a coup “necessary” to fix democracy—the government watchdogs that Thaksin had done his best to tame had gotten their teeth back during the seven months the country sat without a legislature since the discredited April election.
Less than two weeks after the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej implored the country’s top judges on April 25 to “solve the problem” after an “undemocratic” election, the judiciary voided the boycotted April 2 election. Then the courts tossed the pro-Thaksin election commissioners in jail, in an apparent effort to ensure that the next elections would be “free and fair.”
Momentum was clearly on the side of the reformers. Thailand’s damaged political system was being repaired. On September 8, the Senate approved a new five-member election watchdog comprised of well-respected judges and lawyers to oversee the next election. Analysts agreed at the time that the new commission would make it hard for anyone to contest the election result or boycott it altogether –- as the three main opposition parties did in April.
So why a coup now?
“The cynical view is that they knew Thaksin would win the next election, so a coup became the only option for getting rid of him,” a Western diplomat told the Asia Sentinel.
“They” refers to a group of military commanders, elites and blue-bloods close to King Bhumibol, led by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin and former prime minister and retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads the privy council. For months, the royalists have seen Thaksin as a threat to the power Bhumibol and those surrounding him have acquired during six decades on the throne.
For the bulk of Thaksin’s five years in office, the battle had largely been fought behind the scenes. Several controversial academic papers, such as one written recently by University of Leeds professor Duncan McCargo, have argued that Thaksin attempted to break apart the palace’s royal networks in the bureaucracy by appointing his own cronies to key spots in the government and armed forces.
This proxy war burst out into the open in July, when Thaksin accused a “highly influential person” outside the Constitution of attempting to “overthrow the government, rules and laws, the constitution and democracy.” Thaksin’s words left no doubt that he was referring to Prem.
The influential retired general did not take the slight well. In late June, he suited up in full military regalia and told graduating Army cadets in what now looks to be a prophetic speech: "Soldiers are like horses and governments are jockeys but not owners. You belong to the nation and His Majesty the King."
The military was emboldened after the speech. A few days later, Sonthi surprised Thaksin by unexpectedly transferring 129 mid-ranking officers loyal to the premier outside of key positions in Bangkok. The move effectively broke the chain of command Thaksin had spent the past five years building up, and signaled a challenge from within the military ranks.
Then earlier this month, Sonthi broke ranks with the official government line on the ongoing insurgency in the country’s southernmost provinces, where more than 1,700 people have died since January 2004. After Thaksin handed him full authority to oversee counterinsurgency measures, Sonthi, a Muslim, publicly proposed entering into negotiations with militant groups the government has called “terrorists.”
Thaksin’s government was not amused. Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya quickly dismissed the idea, exposing the rift between the military commander and the executive branch.
Now Sonthi is not just in charge of the South, but the whole country. He is a strident palace loyalist and is seen as acting on behalf of the 78-year-old Bhumibol, who gave his tacit approval for the coup when he met Sonthi and other generals a few hours after they rolled tanks into the capital.
Some reports have claimed that Thaksin initiated the coup by trying to arrest Sonthi or Prem, either of whom then ordered a counter-coup. Others doubt that theory, noting the efficiency and ease with which the military locked down Bangkok, and Thaksin’s vulnerability in sitting nearly 14,000 km away from the Thai capital in Manhattan, where he was prepared to address the UN General Assembly.
The reasons for the coup also appeared to change overnight. At first the generals cited “rampant corruption and national disunity,” although today they told foreign diplomats that Thaksin and his Cabinet were free to return to the country and “had done nothing wrong.”
It doesn’t really matter what reasons they gave: the objective of removing Thaksin from power has been accomplished. Now the junta has outlined a path to normalcy: a civilian government will be appointed in two weeks, and an election will be held within a year.
Speculation now rests on who will take the helm as interim prime minister. The names of several royalists have already been tossed about: Prem, Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary general of the palace-supported Chai Pattana Foundation; or privy councilors General Surayud Chulanond and Palakorn Suwannarat.
Others think a figure that is not so blatantly linked to the palace will be named to give Bhumibol the proper distance from an internationally condemned military coup. These candidates include Akaratorn Chularat, president of the Administrative Court, and Bank of Thailand Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula—a selection that would surely reassure the business community.
“The generals have a problem in choosing people who are too close to the king,” a Thaksin adviser told the Asia Sentinel on condition of anonymity. “I think they’ll choose someone who appears neutral so the palace can keep up the fiction that they are not involved.”
Although the coup leaders and the Bangkok elite see this as a chance to finally usher in the pure, incorruptible democracy that the 1997 Constitution drafters envisioned, the Thaksin camp is obviously less optimistic. They see the coup as the final hand in a game of realpolitik won by a group of aging royalists who played the only card they had left.
“The royal faction doesn’t like constitutions and they don’t like elections,” the Thaksin adviser said. “They want their historical power back. There will be a democracy; but it will be one that they can easily manipulate.”
So the choice for Thais appears to be between a democracy manipulated by Thaksin or one manipulated by Bhumibol. While most Thais are conditioned to side with their beloved king, hopefully one day they will be empowered to choose something else.