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What coup?

Minh Nguyen*

Published in Meeting Place, 1(2), Winter 2006. An updated version of this op-ed is published in Eureka Street, 3/10/06

There is something ironic about staging a military coup against a popularly elected government in order to uphold democracy. But this is exactly what coup leaders in Thailand claimed to have done. That the bloodless coup happened in one of the most admired democracies in the region and that it prompted only a casual reaction from the locals, highlights a major paradox in Thai democracy which is both worrying and hopeful.

With Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra across the globe in New York, the military, led by Muslim army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, moved to oust a government that in the past year has become increasingly destabilising. Referring to themselves as the “Council for Democratic Reform”, the junta declared martial law, revoked the constitution, dissolved parliament, censored the media and banned “political activities”.

Announcing the changes, General Sondhi said the country’s first coup in 15 years was necessary to heal rifts in Thai society. He accused Thaksin of “undermining the democratic norms” and of “harming the dignity” of Thailand’s greatly revered king. The military commanders also referred to “unprecedented division in the country, widespread corruption [and] nepotism,” as being among the catalysts for their actions.

The complaints against Thaksin are not far off the mark. Thaksin’s wealth and power, which once satisfied Thailand’s need for political stability, also enabled him to undermine institutions designed to preserve political checks and balances. Critics complained that he used his massive wealth to file anti-defamation lawsuits against the media and his vocal opponents. He is also accused of nepotism and cronyism in a number of state-initiated mega-projects and in his business dealings.

This style of bullyboy governance explains the casual response from many Thais who perhaps saw no difference between a slow or speedy death for democracy. At least now there is a possibility for change, they say. The memorable images of people offering flowers to troops suggest that many Thais are relieved, if not glad, to see the self-made billionaire go, even if the means were less than ideal. “It’s a military coup to overthrow an undemocratic democratically elected regime,” declared a former senator and civil society activist, Jon Ungpakorn.

The paradoxes of this coup do not end here. Andrew Walker notes in the Canberra Times that much of the groundwork for the coup had been laid by self-declared advocates of democracy, including sections of civil society and the Bangkok “elite”, lead by media mogul and former Thaksin crony Sondhi Limthongkul. With most of the anti-government rallies concentrated in Bangkok, Walker says the advocates for democracy surrounded “themselves with the symbolism of an unelected monarch” and boycotted Thaksin’s snap referendum-like election in April.

The issue would not have been so complicated but for Thaksin’s popular support among the nation’s poor. He was seen as a political innovator who introduced policies and programs which fostered entrepreneurship and helped the poor. His government gave the rural poor government-subsidised health care and introduced a debt moratorium. They paid the incumbent government in kind by giving Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party an overwhelming victory at last year’s general election and again in April this year.

However, several months have passed since the last election and, in rural Thailand, the impact of the king’s tacit endorsement of the coup remains unclear. The few political protests against the coup indicate that there may have been a mood swing outside the nation’s capital. This notion is supported by results of a survey of 2000 people conducted by the Bangkok Post on the first day of Thailand’s new military rule – before strict censorship laws were in place – which found nearly 84 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of the regime change, with 75 per cent believing that the coup would improve the political situation.

This highlights a final paradox of what Colum Murphy of the Far Eastern Economic Review calls “Thai-style democracy” which fuses the popular will with the unquestioned authority of the king. This is the only system that will work for Thailand, the king’s right-hand man, General Prem Tinsulanonda, was quoted as saying. “We will never be a republic or without a king,” he said in an interview on the day of the coup.

The notion that the Thais love their democracy as much as their king is hinted at in an upcoming report on Asia Pacific non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs) perceptions of Australia conducted by Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre. In the survey, Thai NGOs were asked how they rate the importance of a series of foreign policy goals. Promoting democracy in the region was rated fourth among eleven policy goals, with eight out of ten NGOs claiming that it is very or fairly important.

Interestingly the survey also found that promoting democracy and human rights in Asia were rated ahead of the need to strengthen the local economy. While it is not easy to compare NGO opinion with public opinion, a similar survey in Australia by the Lowy Institute in 2005 found almost an opposite set of priorities among Australians. Respondents rated strengthening the Australian economy (with 94 per cent saying it was very or fairly important) ahead of promoting democracy abroad (61 per cent). The survey found that for at least one group of Thais, a group most likely to have supported the coup, democratic values themselves are not questioned.

While democratic institutions in Thailand may have taken a step backward last month, it would be a mistake to think, as some cynics have claimed, that the Thais’ casual approach to the eighteenth coup in 74 years reveals a national disposition towards authoritarianism,. The fact that so many Thais were conscious and concerned about Thaksin’s electoral rigging and cronyism is hardly a sign of democratic complacency. To make a comparison, perhaps Australian politics would be in a different place today if the public showed the same levels of consciousness and concern over issues of democracy and public accountability as they do over interest rates and petrol prices.

With the junta making good its promise on an interim prime minister within a fortnight of the coup, the onus is now on those who applauded the coup to ensure that the democratic institutions they had previously enjoyed are not just returned, but strengthened.

It is hopeful to know that there are already signs of democratic agitation, despite a ban on political activities. NGOs and civic groups from across the nation are planning a massive gathering to discuss political and constitutional reforms. Thousands of people are expected to join the three-day Thai Social Forum in one of the biggest gatherings in Thailand of academics and social activists in years. Ahead of this meeting, the organisers have released a petition which called on the junta to lift martial law, revoke its ban on political gatherings and end media interference. This is a positive sign and a reminder to the West not to brush off democracy – Thai-style – just yet.

* Minh Nguyen is a researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre and has authored several reports on the human rights situation in the Asia Pacific region.

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