Thailand: Democracy Removed by Military Coup
Wed Sep 27, 2006 16:24

Thailand: Democracy Removed by Military Coup

By John E. Carey --
September 27, 2006

On Tuesday, September 19, 2006, a military coup removed one of the world’s democratically elected governments from the map. While Thailand’s Prime Minister was in New York at the United Nations, his job was taken away. A Muslim general took over.

What is really striking about this is that the United States and the United Kingdom, the two staunchest allies in the war against terror remained almost silent. Neither the President of the United States nor Tony Blair have said a word about the coup.

Even though President Bush has said over and over that spreading democracy is part of his doctrine, and that “democracies don’t attack other democracies,” he seemed to give the Thai military a “pass” on this.

Tony Snow, the White House Press Spokesman, at first said, “we’re disappointed at the coup.” A few days later, Snow said, the United States is “committed to democracy and in now way do we countenance military coups.”

By September 26, Secretary of State was on the record with a well thought out response to the Thailand coup.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she said, "It's not a good thing and we are terribly displeased to have had a military coup.”

"They need to get a civilian government and they need to get to elections and get back on a democratic path very, very quickly,” said Secretary Rice.

“But I don't think it will have -- at least we don't see -- an impact on the rest of the region," Rice added.

This was the 18th coup in Thailand since it became a constitutional democracy in 1932.

The military government announced Monday that it would name a new prime minister by early next week and would soon approve a long-delayed government budget. But new elections are a far-off prospect, the government said, 12 months or more in the future sources told us.

Clearly, the situation is complicated. The former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, was democratically elected twice. A billionaire, he was known for corruption in government. In fact, critics charged that his universal health care program, food subsidies to the poor and care for the elderly and others were crass ways to buy votes. The opposition sat out the last election in protest.

He and his family were also accused of fraudulently enriching itself by selling his telecommunications empire for $1.9 Billion.

Shinawatra was also unable to stop a Muslim insurgency that was taking a mounting toll in lives in their terror campaign.

The Prime Minister may have been complicit in a system of death squads that rampaged in the south, causing "disappearing" human rights advocates. More than 1,200 people have died in the last two years in the southern region of Thailand.

When Thailand's monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, criticized Thaksin in a speech last December, that probably signaled the death knell of the Taksin government.

So now Thailand has a Muslim leader.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, army commander in chief and an ally of the royal palace, ran the coup. The coup-makers wore the monarchy's traditional colors, and the king later endorsed Sonthi's transitional government.

When he became Army Chief of Staff, Boonyaratglin claimed that he would take a "new and effective" approach to the Muslim terror crisis in the south – a problem that has all of the attributes of a low-intensity civil war.

Now we know his definition of a new and effective approach.

International organizations such as Human Rights Watch condemned Sonthi's actions. Former prime minister Chuan Leekpai announced, "As politicians, we do not support any kind of coup but . . . [but] Thaksin has caused the crisis."

And some wonder if this new government will be as corrupt as the old. “There's absolutely no system of checking and control now and so we're very concerned that they will line their pockets and spend our money in the way they want," said Ji Giles Ungpakorn, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

"Military regimes in the past have been incredibly corrupt," said Ungpakorn.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Thailand produces a large share of the world's computer hard drives, is the world's largest rice exporter, has a thriving automotive industry and hosts an average of a million tourists each month.

Professor Ungpakorn said, "Decisions are being made by people carrying guns who were never elected."

"Whether you liked Thaksin - and I never supported him or voted for him -- he was elected. What's happening now is worse than under Thaksin from a moral, a democratic and an economic point of view,” Ungpakorn said in a telephone interview.

Before the crisis started early this year, Thailand's politics seemed to be operating on perfectly. After nearly 15 years of civilian rule, the country had built a vibrant democracy. The nation was operating under a 1997 reform-minded constitution hailed as one of the most progressive in the region.

There are those that say any form of democracy is better than some other alternative: like a coup and a military government.

We spoke to Thanh Trang Nguyen, a former professor and Vice President of the University of Hue in Vietnam before the Communist takeover. “The coup d'etat last week was a step backward for democracy in Thailand,” he told us.“Maybe it was true that the prior premier was very corrupt, but he was democratically elected. The Thai people have the right to replace him, but it has to be done in a democratic manner, as their Constitution so directed,” said Nguyen.

No shots were fired in the coup, no blood was spilled and initially it seemed Thais welcomed the change.

This week, in a crude effort to make all things seem normal, Thailand’s military mounted a charm campaign. Soldiers were told to smile more and a former beauty queen began appearing on Thai TV to make announcement.

"The real issue is not having basic freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press," said Ungpakorn, who helped form the Network Against the Coup d'Etat. "We don't have basic human rights. They can parade a hundred beauty queens but without these freedoms, we don't have anything."

In a sign, perhaps, of progress and forward thinking, Thailand's military council on Tuesday named dozens of prominent civilians to serve as advisers.

The military council announced on television that it had appointed businessmen, civil servants, academics and other prominent figures to advisory committees on matters including the economy, foreign affairs, ethics and governance, and reconciliation.

Several critic of the coup were on the list of new “advisors.”

But this may be another clumsy move by a naive military.

"I have not been consulted whatsoever. I have said that the coup is wrong, how can I serve as its advisory board?" said Chaiwat Satha-anand, who teaches political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Thailand also has a dark human rights side. The sex trade has been booming in Thailand for generations and police are largely complicit, on the payroll or looking the other way. Trafficking in young girls and women is common.

One might hope this will this criminal activity can be lessened under a new government but the problem has lasted through many regimes.

The military is ruling under martial law and public gatherings of more than five people are banned. It has also called on the media to exercise self-censorship and decreed that all organizations at the district and provincial levels cease their activities for now.


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