Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Optimism under martial law - The Guardian

This article reflects my opinion on the issue. The paradox is - if the junta keeps its promises - this coup d'etat could be a new start for Thai democracy: A new constitution, a new election process ... without the interference of a despot. However, it remains to be seen that the generals give back their power to the people smoothly.


Jonathan Fenby

September 20, 2006 02:47 PM

Generals who stage coups on the promise of democracy are bound to be a suspect quantity, given their track record of either clinging to power or ensuring that only favoured politicians get to run in the elections they promise to put in place.

So the knee-jerk reaction is bound to be to take a dim view of the pledge by the General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, Thailand's army commander, to step down from power in a fortnight following yesterday's coup against its prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The general's promise to open the way for a new leader "who is neutral and upholds democracy" will inevitably raise questioning eyebrows.

The military intervention, 15 years after the last coup in Thailand, is bound to jolt the perception of the country as an ever-strengthening democracy. But the truth is that Thaksin brought his downfall on himself, and that the army - with the crucial backing of the king, who, presumably, did not stand in the way of yesterday's action - may be the only instrument for getting things back on an even keel -Thai-style.

Democracy has seen the country swinging to extremes - from a highly corrupt government to a progressive reformist regime and then to Thaksin, a billionaire who originally won election as the bright new face of entrepreneurial Thailand but who also won a fervent following among country folk - along with the enmity of the Bangkok elite.

The trouble was that he just did not know where to stop. He accreted political power, and tried to put his men in key posts in the military. He used heavy-handed methods against Muslims in the south of the country. A $1.9bn deal to sell his family firm with an arm of the Singapore government was so structured that no tax was paid.

An opposition boycott of the last general election hollowed out his mandate, but, despite promises, he would not step down, and appeared increasingly autocratic. Now, while on a visit to New York from where he is reported to have flown to London, he has paid the price.

The question now is whether General Sonthi, having headed off the Thaksin faction in the army, will genuinely allow a re-shaping of civilian politics. That would probably bring a decline in the power of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party, and its fragmentation as his guiding hand and deep pocketrs leave the scene. The opposition Democrats, who were seen out of office due to their lack of the popular touch and the hangover from the Asian financial crisis that began in Thailand in 1997, can be expected to muster themselves. There could also be a re-shaping of the contitution to reduce the powers of the prime minister, which Thaksin used to such great effect.

If that happens in a peaceful manner before elections are held in a year's time, the coup could actually strengthen the cause of democracy which the prime minister was leading up his own personal path. The danger in that will be of a confrontation between Thaksin's supprters among the rural poor, and the Bangkok elite which could find itself deferring to the army. What happens to pro-Thaksin elements in the armed forces is another open question as is the role which the much-revered king will play.

If, on the other hamd, the Thai generals conform to the habitual military pattern, south-east Asia would find itself with army-ruled Thailand sitting next to army-ruled Burma and nearby to Singapore, dominated by one party. With authoritarian tendencies and a free-wheeling approach to elections always rippling below the surface in several other countries of the region, what happens in Thailand will be a litmus test for the progress of democracy in an area which has seen military and authoritarian regimes replaced by elected civilian governments in Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines as well as Thailand in an advance towards electoral democracy to rival that experienced in Latin America.

At a time when spreading democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan is be proving a lot harder than Washington had figured; preserving it in south-east Asia is all the more important - even if it requires generals to do the trick.


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