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.

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