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A new Siamese tragedy

Thailand's recent military coup - the 18th since 1932 - ousted a leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who had already lost moral legitimacy and much of his political power. In pre-empting the democracy of the street, argues Walden Bello, the country's military has administered a cure that will prove worse than the disease

November 1, 2006
8 min read

Democracy on the ropes

Thai democracy was in bad shape before Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in January 2001. The first Chuan Leekpai government in 1992-95 was marked by the absence of even the slightest effort at social reform. The government of former provincial businessman Banharn Silipa- Archa, in 1995-96, was accurately described as ‘a semi-kleptocratic administration where coalition partners were paid to stay sweet, just like he used to buy public works contracts’. Then followed, in 1996-97, the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former general, which was based on an alliance among big business elites, provincial bosses and local godfathers.

Relatively free elections were held during this period, but they served mainly to determine which coalition of elites would have its turn at using government as a mechanism of private capital accumulation. The massive corruption, especially under Banharn and Chavalit, repelled the Bangkok middle class, while the urban and rural poor saw no sign of democracy making a change in their lives.

Thailand under IMF rule

Democracy suffered a further blow in 1997-2001 following the Asian financial crisis. This time it was not the local elites that were the culprit. It was the IMF, which pushed for very severe cuts in public spending, decreeing many corporations bankrupt, liberalising foreign investment laws and privatising state enterprises. The IMF assembled a $72 billion rescue fund, but the money was spent not to save the economy but to enable the government to pay off foreign creditors.

When the Chavalit government hesitated to adopt these measures, the IMF pressed for a change in government. The second Chuan government complied fully, and for the next three years Thailand had a government that was accountable not to its people but a foreign institution. Not surprisingly, it lost much of its credibility as the country plunged into recession and one million Thais fell under the poverty line.

The Thaksin years: monopoly capitalism-cum-populism

Thailand was a severely compromised democracy by the time Thaksin won the 2001 election on an anti-IMF platform.

In his first year in office, he inaugurated three heavy spending programmes that directly contradicted the IMF edicts: a moratorium on farmers’ existing debt, along with facilitating new credit for them; medical treatment for all at only 30 baht (less than a dollar) per illness; and a one million baht fund for every district to invest as it saw fit.

These policies did not bring on the inflationary crisis that the IMF and conservative local economists expected. Instead they buoyed the economy and cemented Thaksin’s massive support among the rural and urban poor.

This was the ‘good’ side of Thaksin. The problem was that, having secured his support with these programmes – and with practices that analysts Alec and Chanida Bamford called ‘neofeudal patronage’ – he began to subvert freedom of the press, use control of government to favour his businesses and those of his cronies, buy allies, and buy off opponents.

His war on drugs, using his favourite agency, the police, resulted in the loss of over 2,500 lives. This bothered human rights activists but was popular with the majority. He also assumed a hardline, purely punitive policy toward the Muslim insurgency in the three southern provinces that merely worsened the situation there. His championing of a free trade agreement with the US created an opposition coalition of activists and threatened agricultural and industrial interests. High-handed, arrogant, unwilling to listen and vindictive, he was his own worst enemy.

Nonetheless, Thaksin appeared to have found the formula for a long stay in power, supported by an electoral majority, when he overreached. In January, his family sold their controlling stake in telecoms conglomerate Shin Corp to a Singapore government front called Temasek Holdings for $1.87 billion. Before the sale, Thaksin had made sure the revenue department would interpret or modify the rules to exempt him from paying taxes.

This brought the Bangkok middle class to the streets to demand his removal.

In response, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called an election for 2 April. His coalition won 57 per cent of the vote, but the polls were boycotted by the opposition, leading to an opposition-less parliament. After a not-too-veiled suggestion by the revered King Bhumibol, the supreme court found the elections to be in violation of the constitution and ordered them to be held again. Thaksin resigned as prime minister and said he would act as caretaker PM until fresh elections were held.

Polarisation but not gridlock

The country was not in gridlock prior to the coup; certainly, it was far from descending into civil war.

The moral tide had turned against Thaksin, as his resignation showed. He had lost control, criticism was widespread in a media that was once tame, and the pressure was on for him to quit before the elections, originally scheduled for 15 October but rescheduled for November. On 20 September, two days after the coup, the People’s Alliance for Democracy had planned to stage a mass rally to begin the final push against him.

Of course, the outcome was not guaranteed, nor was violence out of the question. But indeterminacy and periods of polarisation before the resolution of disputes are part and parcel of the risks that come with democracy. Thais were wrestling to resolve the question of political succession through democratic, civilian methods. The seeming chaos of it all was a part of the growing pains of a democracy.

And it seemed like ‘people power’ or the democracy of the streets would, as in the people’s uprising of May 1992, successfully determine political succession, creating an important precedent in democratic practice.

Cure worse than disease

That is the vibrant democratic process that the military coup cut short. This move, everybody agrees, was unconstitutional, illegal, and undemocratic. Many also say, however, that it is popular and it is valid because it ended a crisis.

This is questionable. The coup may have temporarily ended the crisis but at the pain of provoking a much deeper one.

Thailand’s first really popularly-approved constitution, inaugurated in 1997, has been abolished by military fiat. This constitution, approved after consultation with civil society, placed many controls on the exercise of parliamentary and executive power, and on the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats. The anti-Thaksin coup leaders, for all their rhetoric about ‘restoring democracy,’ simply tore up the very democratic document that Thaksin had systematically subverted.

Some people say that the coup leader and army chief, General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, is sanguine about stepping aside.

But personal predilections are no match for institutional interests.

More than any other military in southeast Asia, the Thai military has shown a propensity for intervening in the political process, having launched some 18 military coups since 1932. Thai military men have an ingrained institutional contempt for civilian politicians, regarding them as blundering fools. The generals have often promised to return to civilian rule after a coup, but proceeded to rule directly or indirectly through militaryappointed civilians.

General Sondhi’s words must be taken with the same seriousness as his assurance days before the takeover that military coups ‘were a thing of the past’.

Already, the generals have drafted an interim constitution that makes them ‘advisers’ to an interim civilian government.

Indeed, their circle has been joined by key authoritarian figures who wield power independently of them. The interim prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, is a former supreme commander of the armed forces. While he has been portrayed as a military reformer who has tried to depoliticise the army, he rose to prominence as a counterinsurgency expert. An elite unit he commanded was involved in the bloody repression of civilians during the May 1992 uprising against the last military dictatorship.

A member of the privy council, the advisory body to the king, Surayud is known to be a traditionalist and royalist. He will hardly be independent. General Sonthi has arrogated to himself the power to fire him.

Where next for Thailand?

Thailand now is in an institutional vacuum that is fast being filled by the old conservative (as opposed to populist) right. But the final outcome is not determined. A great deal depends on Thailand’s increasingly mobilised civil society.

It is essential, first, to stand on principle and condemn the coup as a return to a Jurassic past.

There can be no ifs or buts.

Some activists say that beyond this, the movement must insist that the 1997 constitution remains in force. They also propose the setting up of a People’s Interim Council, with many of its leaders drawn from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, that would, among other things, organise new elections very quickly – in short, a system of ‘parallel power’.

Though important, these are short or medium term measures.

Of greatest importance is whether popular leaders will be able to formulate a truly transformative political programme to bridge the gap between the middle-class based people’s power movement and the alienated lower classes that formed the electoral base of the deposed regime.

Such an alliance would set democracy in Thailand on truly firm foundations. The question is: will Thai civil society rise to this historic challenge?

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