: Nguyen : Onus now on those
who supported Thai coup
Onus now on those who supported Thai coup
A version of this op-ed is published in Eureka
Street, 16(14), 3 October 2006
Click here for
an earlier, full version
A former army commander who once declared "the army should
never be involved in politics", Surayud Chulanont, was appointed
Thailand's interim prime minister at the weekend. But the irony
of this appointment matters little in a coup marked by paradoxes.
From day one, the coup against a democratically-elected government
and the subsequent crackdown on the media and political activities
were branded by the generals as an attempt to salvage Thai democracy.
Coup leader General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin had accused the telecommunication
tycoon and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption,
nepotism and "undermining the democratic norms".
Admittedly, 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.
This style of bullyboy governance would explain another paradox
of the recent events in Thailand: the casual reaction from the locals
towards the coup. Perhaps they saw no difference between a slow
or speedy death for Thai democracy.
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. However,
minor incidences of vandalism are a reminder that there are also
losers under the new regime.
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
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, which found nearly 84 per cent of those surveyed
were in favour of the regime change.
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 on the day of the coup.
The idea 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.
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 this month, it would be a mistake to think that the Thais'
casual approach to the eighteenth coup in 74 years reveals a national
disposition towards authoritarianism, as some cynics have suggested.
The fact that so many Thais were conscious and concerned about
Thaksin's electoral rigging and cronyism, is hardly a sign of democratic
To make a comparison, perhaps Australian politics would be in a
different place today if the public showed the same level 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.
The responsibility for Australia is not to quietly continue its
support of the military as it appears to be doing, but to loudly
rally behind those groups pushing for genuine reform.
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 "Thai
Social Forum" gathering to discuss political and constitutional
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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