September 20, 2006


Thailand: All the king's men (Shawn W Crispin, 9/21/06, Asia Times)

[T]his coup, with clear backing from the royal palace, unlike previous military interventions in Thai politics, has significantly been warmly received by Bangkok's elite and middle classes, including well-known democratic-reform advocates.

Although Thaksin is immensely popular in the country's rural countryside - where about 80% of the country's voters reside - real power in Thailand is still highly concentrated in Bangkok, and Bhumibol's authoritative endorsement of the caretaker premier's removal signals clearly that the coup is final.

The military's newly formed Administrative Reform Council (ARC) justified its seizure of power on the grounds that the Thaksin administration's actions had frequently bordered on "lese majeste" and had created "social division like never before". The council also indicated that Thaksin had "politically meddled" with state units and independent organizations and "faced growing doubts ... of widespread reports of corruption".

Those complaints resonate strongly across Bangkok's elite and middle classes, which at first supported but five years later now widely view Thaksin's divide-and-rule style of governance as a bigger threat to Thailand's democratic future than temporary military rule. Conservative elements close to the palace had tacitly supported the massive anti-government street protests that kicked up late last year, gathered pace early this year, and eventually pressured Thaksin to declare snap polls in late February.

The mainstream media have widely misinterpreted the potent but peaceful protests as being galvanized by the Thaksin family's controversial US$1.9 billion tax-free sale of its 49% holdings in the Shin Corporation to Singapore's Temasek Holdings. To the contrary, the protests, which were later co-opted by various special-interest groups aligned against the government, were first galvanized and primarily sustained by the explosive claims first made by firebrand media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul that Thaksin was on particular occasions disloyal to the throne.

Democratic-minded Thais have since loyally donned royal-yellow shirts to demonstrate their support for the King, months after the elaborate June celebrations that marked the 60-year anniversary of his accession to the throne.

Military Coup in Thailand: General Promises a Quick Return to Democracy (Der Spiegel, 9/20/06)
Late Tuesday though, the general pounced. With no sign that the months-long political stalemate in the country was close to being resolved, Sondhi sent tanks and soldiers onto the streets of Bangkok, declared martial law and seized power in the country. The government district was cordoned off, but elsewhere in the city of 10 million life continued largely as normal and there were no injuries reported.

The overthrow, Sondhi said in a statement broadcast on television, was necessary "in order to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people." He continued, "We would like to reaffirm that we don't have any intention to rule the country and will return power to the Thai people as soon as possible." On Wednesday, he said that a general election would be held in October 2007.

Popularity Contest: Thailand's ousted prime minister is no democratizer. (Joshua Kurlantzick, 09.20.06, New Republic)
[S]ince first winning election in 2001, Thaksin has used his power to meddle with the country's independent watchdog institutions--such as the National Counter Corruption Commission--and remove independent civil servants from the bureaucracy only to replace them with his own loyalists. His family's company bought up much of the independent media and sacked critics of the prime minister, and Thaksin politicized the independent branches of government, such as the supposedly nonpartisan Thai Senate.

At the same time, Thaksin's brutal tactics during a rumbling conflict in southern Thailand only further stoked unrest, culminating in a series of bombings last weekend in the southern resort town of Hat Yai. And Thaksin seemed not to understand the line between serving as prime minister and serving his family's business, a telecommunications empire that made him the richest man in the country. A 2003 study by Vanderbilt University of publicly listed firms in 47 countries revealed that Thailand had the third-largest percentage of companies with connections to the governing party (Russia and Italy had the most). Eight of the ten largest conglomerates in Thailand had officials with links to their companies in Thaksin's cabinet. The final blow came earlier this year, when Thaksin appeared to use the power of his office to help sell part of his family's telecommunications to a Singaporean firm.

Eventually, Thaksin even alienated the most important power center in Thailand--the monarchy. Though Thailand's king is technically a constitutional monarch, he is deeply revered by most Thais, and, through surrogates in the Thai political scene, quietly wields vastly more power than someone like Queen Elizabeth. When the palace obliquely criticized Thaksin's corruption and amassing of power, Thaksin refused to budge. The army historically has close ties to the monarchy. Upon seizing power, the military transitional government released a statement condemning Thaksin for "lèse majesté"--insulting the honor of the king.

Now, Thaksin will have to rally just those liberals in Bangkok who previously had cursed him and called for his head. American policymakers, too, face a similar dilemma; democratizer John McCain, for example, has blasted Thaksin's policies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Yes, the King is immensely popular, so his support indicates a done deal. Good news because I have a business trip scheduled to Bangkok for mid-October . If previous visits are any indication, it may be hard to tell the difference in the chaos that is a large third-world city.

Posted by: TimF at September 20, 2006 11:46 AM

So, when Shin wins again, then what?

Posted by: Bob at September 20, 2006 12:40 PM

You restrict the franchise.

Posted by: oj at September 20, 2006 2:18 PM

I don't know what part it may have played in recent Thai politics, but 4500 people have been killed by Muslim rioters, protestors, and terrorizers in the past year (primarily in the south). Supposedly the general who led the coup is Muslim. Perhaps that is just a coincidence (I don't know anything about him or the guy he dumped).

Could the recent focus on the Thai sex "industry" have played any part in what happened?

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 20, 2006 9:49 PM

Why would it? Moslems believe in the degradation of women and what could be more unhumanizing than the sex trade?

Posted by: erp at September 21, 2006 11:43 AM