Thursday, September 21, 2006

The "Pro-Democracy" Coup

HUA HIN -- Thailand’s constitution, written in 1997, is one of the most progressive documents of its kind in the world. Written by esteemed political scientists, it recognized the people’s right to manage resources, access to information and investigate the politicians.

It is chock full of checks and balances. Promulgated in the aftermath of the crisis of 1992 when civilian rule was restored following an earlier military takeover, it was designed to put an end to coups and military rule once and for all.

Why then did it fail Thailand?

The first thing that the generals who seized power in the capital, Bangkok, last Tuesday did was abrogate the constitution. Styling themselves, rather grandly, as the Council for Democratic Reform, they promised to restore democracy, and draft a new document.

One of the original drafters, Khanin Boonsuwan, said, “it was the best constitution we ever had.”

Why then did it fail Thailand?

“The 1997 Constitution was like a big tree and politicians like parasite plants that were allowed to grow until too late to control. That left only one option – uprooting the whole tree,” he said.

In retrospect it is clear that all political factions in the country set out to subvert both the letter and the spirit of the liberal document almost from the beginning. That includes, of course, the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and members of his party, known colorfully as the “Thais Love Thais” Party.

For example, under the constitution the elected senate is not so much a legislative body, as it is in the United States, as it is a kind of guardian council. But from the beginning Thaksin senators abrogated their role as watchdogs to secretly serve the government’s agenda.

The senate’s support made it possible for the government to subvert supposedly independent bodies, such as the Election Commission. Three members of the commission were earlier imprisoned for trying to manipulate the results of the April 2 general election.

But the not-so loyal opposition parties also failed the country when they determined to boycott a general election because they knew they would lose. That led to the election being annuled and directly to the current political impasse. It finally took the army to cut through the Gordian Knot.

As the Bangkok Post editorialized: “Democracy is not just about free elections Rather, the democratic process is difficult daily task of making authorities accountable to voters and reining in the politicians who abuse the agreed legal framework.”

As military takeovers go, it was a peaceful, almost joyful occasion. People in Thailand, the capital at any rate, were sick and tired of Thaksin, who had ruled since 2001. A quick and dirty poll the day after by the Bangkok Post showed that 81% of Bangkok people supported the coup.

Interestingly, a slightly higher percentage outside the capital said they too supported the generals’ actions, even though the hinterland is supposed to be the stronghold of the premier’s support.

The ad hoc People’s Alliance for Democracy, which had organized massive demonstrations against Thaksin in March, called off a planned resumption of popular protests in support of the coup. In any case, the generals banned public political gatherings of more than five people.

The fact that King Bhumibol quickly endorsed the coup, no doubt contributed to the general approval and peacefulness of the takeover. The coup leader, General Sonthi even apologized on national television, “for any inconvenience that it might cause.” There wasn’t even a curfew.

The soldiers sported yellow ribbons – the royal color - around their wrists or around the barrels of their guns and posed for pictures with a bemused Bangkok citizens. It had something of feel of the “People Power” revolt in the Philippines in 1986 that ousted the long-time strongman Ferdinand Marcos (the color of that rebellion was also yellow).

But then most coups in Thailand - there have been more than a dozen in the past 75 years - are popular at first. It is later, when the generals have worn out their welcome and the streets begin to fill again with protestors demanding that they quit that the troops are not so friendly.

This group of generals is well aware of the history, and it is expected that they will turn the government over to some kind of non-political civilian administration in a couple weeks. On the other hand, they let it be known that elections won’t resume for at least a year.

If things turn nasty, Thais trust their revered King will intervene to protect them, just as he done in years past. But the King is now 79 years old, and it cannot be certain that he will live to see another civilian government is installed.

The worst case scenario for Thailand would be for the King to die sometime during the next year. If that were to happen, Thailand might be faced with a succession crisis at a time when the government lacks popular legitimacy.

The coup was a step backward for Thailand, but it would still be a step forward if it turns out that the generals are serious about reform and that “Council for Democratic Reform” is more than just a euphemism for a junta.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Prince is Born

All Japan rejoiced in the birth of a baby boy to Princess Kiko and her husband, Prince Akishino this week. A smaller but influential segment of Japanese society rejoiced that Japan has been spared the ignominy of having a woman on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The birth of a new prince, the first male born into the imperial family in 41 years, seems to assure male succession to the throne through the third generation, thus postponing any debate on allowing female succession far into the future.

That will please conservatives who had been scandalized at any changes in the country's male-only succession law. The child was delivered by a Caesarian section - a first for the Japanese imperial family - and the birth was attended by no fewer than 10 medical professionals. Although the sex of the baby was almost certainly known to the family and senior officials of the government, it was not publicized in advance.

Japan’s succession problem has often been called a “crisis,” but that is something of a misnomer. If Crown Prince Naruhito lives as long as his grandfather, the Showa Emperor (Hirohito), the “crisis” would not occur until around the year 2050.

With the birth of another male, and assuming he has an equally long life, the “crisis” is averted until practically the turn of the next century. Nonetheless, Japanese had become anxious about viability of the imperial family, which traces its roots in an unbroken line back to the mythic origins of the nation.

The crown prince and his popular consort, Crown Princess Masako, gave birth to a daughter, Aiko, in 2001. But Masako is 42 and has had difficulty conceiving before. Although it is difficult to penetrate behind the walls of secrecy that envelope the Japanese imperial family, one can easily speculate that pressure was brought to bear on Princess Kiko to have another child. After all, the princess, now 40, last gave birth 11 years ago.

Japan's succession crisis arises because the Imperial Household Law mandates that "the Imperial Throne of Japan shall be succeeded by male descendants in the male line of Imperial Ancestors." The law was passed during the years of the American Occupation, which is strange, since elsewhere, as in the constitution, the Americans mandated equality of the sexes.

The Americans also complicated the succession by abolishing the aristocracy, which is why all of the males in the family, from Emperor Akihito on down, have married commoners. It works for men, but not for women. When Princess Sayako married a Tokyo civil servant last October, she left the imperial family and became a commoner. Any child she and her husband had could not succeed to the throne, since it would be tantamount to forming a new dynasty.

How to ensure the future survival of the imperial family -- and imperial system itself - has therefore been a hot subject of debate in recent years. A private panel of advisors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi released a report last November recommending a break with a male-lineage tradition by allowing females and their descendants to ascend the throne. .

Although Koizumi, a conservative known for his frequent official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, did support changes to the male-only succession, his presumed successor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, is known to have opposed the panel's recommendations. After Kiko gave birth of a boy, Abe told reporters that the government should discuss the idea of revising the Imperial House Law to pave the way for female monarchs ''in a careful manner'', a politic way of saying "forget it".

As to how the imperial men would get around the biological barriers, conservatives had little to suggest other than to revive concubinage. That would have been anathema to the crown prince, whose marriage to Masako Owada was clearly a love match and celebrated as such by a wide section of the Japanese public. Indeed, his grandfather had resisted taking a concubine after he and his empress gave birth to a worrying succession of daughters until the birth of Akihito, the current emperor.

When suddenly in February Princess Kiko's pregnancy was announced, and the prospect of a male heir suddenly seemed realistic again, the proposal to change the succession law was withdrawn with the speed of summer lightening and all debate on the succession ceased, no doubt to be kicked to another generation, or two.