Monday, September 24, 2007

Letter from Thailand (5)

The first anniversary of the Sept. 19 coup in Thailand passed soberly last week. There were no demonstrations either for or against the junta. Indeed, the nation’s attention was mostly focused on the tragic airline crash in Phuket the day before.

The Bangkok Post seemed to capture the mood: “Any fond memories about the Sept. 19 coup as manifested by the warm welcome and flowers given to the troops by many Bangkokians in the aftermath seems to have evaporated a year after the overthrow of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

“The truth is that a year later, there is nothing about the Council of National Security [the junta’s formal name] and the government it installed that is worth remembering with a sense of pride.”

That is a pretty devastating comment and fairly typical of the commentary that has appeared in the English-language press, and presumably in the vernacular press as well, evidenced by snippets of translations I’ve seen.

From my point of view the junta seems to have ruled with a pretty light hand. That the media – the printed media, anyway – can deliver such a harsh verdict is fairly telling. The junta has been stricter with broadcasters, especially foreign interviews with Thaksin.

After assuring itself there would be no-counter coup, the soldiers returned to their barracks and have not really been very visible since then, at least not to me. Of course, Hua Hin, where I live, is something of a backwater, even if the King does live here.

The only violence this past year was the mysterious string of bombings that occurred in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve that have never been satisfactorily explained. Nor have there been any arrests or trials.

Throughout the year the avuncular visage of interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanot, a retired general, has been the public face of the, while the uniformed officers stayed mostly in the background.

His government gets mostly low marks for the way it has managed Thailand’s affairs during the past year. People are especially critical of its handling of the economy, including restrictions on foreign investment and a tilt toward the King’s sufficiency economy ideas.

Meanwhile, the peripatetic former prime minister roams the world from his exile home in Britain. He made some waves when he gave interviews in Singapore and Japan shortly after the coup, causing a minor diplomatic flap with Singapore whose government had received him formally.

But of late he seems to have settled into a rather aimless life of golf, shopping and soccer. He used some of his vast fortune to buy the Manchester City football team.

The government has pursued in a desultory fashion bringing corruption charges against him and his family; supposedly corruption was one of the reasons for the coup, but so far they seem only to have pinned a suspicious land deal on his wife.

From time to time there is talk of his returning, either voluntarily or under extradition. One might think that the recent actions against former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Shariff, not to mention the heavy sentence meted out to former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, might give him pause.

In May the Constitutional Tribunal dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and banned more than 100 TRT politicians from running for office for five years. The remnants have regrouped under the People Power Party banner, led by former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravig.

That the former premier still has political potency could be seen in the large negative vote for the new Thai constitution in his former stronghold of the northeast. Overall, the vote was an underwhelming 57% approval.

That paves the way for a new general election scheduled for December. The current betting is that the venerable Democrat Party and its allies will win enough votes to form a coalition government. But it is not impossible that the Thaksinites might also form a government which could make for an interesting 2008.


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