No Democracy Yet in Thailand


Foreign Policy In Focus

David Kampf | March 2, 2007
Editor: John Feffer, IRC
Foreign Policy In Focus

In mid-September 2006, a bloodless “democratic coup” swept through
Thailand, the region’s darling of democracy. Military leaders justified
their actions as a purely temporary means to wrest the country back
from a power-hungry tycoon and restore the functions of government.

Last month, the military government officially lifted martial law in
Bangkok, the nation’s capital. Restrictions, however, remain along the
borders and in the strongholds of the former leader, Thaksin
Shinawatra. Five months after the coup, democracy is still not around
the corner. Nor has Thaksin, the man the military sought to
marginalize, disappeared entirely from the scene. The restoration of
Thai democracy depends on the military and monarch’s willingness to
cede power to true civilian leaders. As time passes there are more and
more reasons to doubt the junta’s true intentions and their ability to
improve Thailand’s government.

The Coup

The military coup was in many ways unexpected. From the outside,
Thailand appeared to have the potential to become a healthy and stable
democracy. The country had not experienced a coup since 1991. Its
progressive constitution, adopted in 1997, garnered praise both at home
and abroad. Political stability seemed to be assured by the way
Thailand weathered the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most popular politicians the country
had ever seen, built his base of support by providing cheaper
healthcare and financial assistance to the often-marginalized rural
population. Opponents, however, grew increasingly angry as he funneled
money to the countryside. Those in Bangkok who saw him as nothing more
than a corrupt populist labeled his policies “vote-buying.” His critics
had a point. Thaksin was also consolidating power and using his
influence to solidify his own finances. His mishandling of the Muslim
insurgency in the south was a fiasco with no foreseeable end. He was
attempting to gain a foothold in the courts, the media, and most
recently the military. As a result, Thailand’s democracy was becoming
increasingly authoritarian.

It was not only the pervasive corruption that tarnished Thailand’s
democratic record. The revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej weakened
Thailand’s democrats and limited their ability to represent their
constituents. This powerful and respected monarch, who lurked behind
democratic institutions, did little to ensure their accountability. In
a review of Paul M. Handley’s The King Never Smiles,
a banned book in Thailand, Ian Buruma suggests that the “King remains
the ultimate arbiter of power” and citizens expect “that in a crisis it
is the King, and not his government, who comes to the people’s rescue.”
Thaksin did not have a good relationship with the King, so his reign
was arguably doomed from the beginning.

Tensions finally boiled over last year. Thaksin’s family unwisely
sold a major stake in a telecommunications firm, tax-free, to a company
in Singapore. This unleashed the force of “people power” in the
nation’s capital. Energized and united, Thaksin’s opponents wanted to
force him from office even though they had no hope of winning an
election.

Relying on “people power” because a group doesn’t have the votes on
election day is not the loyal opposition needed in a successful
democracy. With all his faults – and there were many – Thaksin was
still a democratically elected leader whose party was nearly assured of
winning the next election. The urban and wealthy constituents needed to
debate the policies in the political arena of a stable democratic
system.

Instead, the massive street protests, because they didn’t force
Thaksin from power, only paved the way for the army. The military might
of tanks and weapons enabled the junta to grasp control. Even though it
was a peaceful military takeover, the event set a dangerous precedent
in a country that was formerly notorious for coups.

Immediately following the coup, the United States and Europe issued
strong rebukes calling for the speedy restoration of democracy. The
United States suspended $24 million in military aid, and the military
struggled to obtain international approval for its actions. Despite
international condemnation, however, sustained criticism has been
muted, and Thailand has avoided crippling isolation.

Thaksin’s Influence

There was a strong expectation that the new military leadership in
Thailand would file corruption charges against Thaksin and his cronies.
But concrete accusations have not been forthcoming (though are expected
in the near future). Thaksin has assured the international community
that he does not intend to reenter politics or regain power. But his
stops in Asia have raised fears that he is plotting a return.

Thaksin’s travels have in turn complicated Thailand’s relations with
its neighbors. In January 2007, for instance, Singapore welcomed
Thaksin to the country in a move that suggested support for the former
Thai leader. Bangkok swiftly severed high-level diplomatic contacts
with its neighbor and former ally.

The coup not only transformed relations but also damaged democracy
throughout southeast Asia by lending greater legitimacy to other
authoritarian regimes. There has been less of an incentive for
countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to open their societies
and respect civil liberties. If democracy cannot function in Thailand,
other countries are not likely to be eager to embrace similar political
reforms.

Life After the Coup

While some claim that the imposition of martial law has been
virtually unnoticeable to the majority of citizens and there has been
no overt repression, other problems have continued unabated. Freedom
House, an organization researching and measuring political freedom
throughout the world, acknowledged the regression of democratic
freedoms under Thaksin. But the organization argues in its most recent
ratings that despite Thaksin’s style of governance, “Thailand had
represented an important gain for democracy in Asia, and the coup
caused its political rights rating to decline to the lowest possible
for the survey.”

In addition to its two-month delay in lifting martial law (the
government was waiting for royal approval), the military has resorted
to various means to hold on to power. The military maintains control
over who will draft the new constitution, which possibly ensures its
retention of influence). It eliminated the judiciary’s independence and
censors the media. Coverage of Thaksin has been banned in the local
press, and an interview he gave to CNN in January was blocked.

On the economic front, the interim government’s handling and
bungling of the economy is exemplified by two decisions. In December,
the stock market experienced a sharp15% drop when the government
unwisely tried to impose capital controls to curb currency speculation.
More recently, the stock market fell again when leaders limited foreign
ownership of companies in Thailand invoking nationalism as a
justification. These measures and the lack of stability that a coup
represents have caused the economy to falter and hurt the government’s
credibility in the eyes of international investors. Still, Thailand’s
economy is expected to have a solid year of growth in 2007 despite some
forecasts that rates will slow.

In an attempt to appeal to Thaksin’s base and continue his successes
economically, the government is repackaging populist economic
interventions. It is shifting away from Thaksinomics to a “sufficiency
economy” as advocated and created by the King. Government actions to
carry out the plan, however, have been met with resistance and
encouraged rumors of internal rifts in the regime. Both the finance
minister, Pridiyathorn Devakula, and Somkid Jatusripitak (a former
Thaksin official) have resigned in the last couple of weeks, and the
government recently announced the lifting of capital controls.

The interim government is fulfilling its promise, however, to employ
a less confrontational approach to manage the insurgency. Nevertheless,
the softer touch has yet to achieve its desired results. On February
18, 28 bombs ripped through southern Thailand following a string of
beheadings, arson attacks, and the New Year’s bombings in Bangkok that
may or may not have been detonated by insurgents. The escalation of
violence and lack of forward progress have caused impatience and
frustration to mount, and the coup’s popularity is receding
accordingly. Last week, a poll
conducted by Bangkok’s Assumption University measured Prime Minister
Surayud Chulanont’s popularity falling from 70% to 35% in November.

What Should Bangkok Do?

Now the military junta has to move the country steadily forward
toward a new constitution and an enhanced democratic government. The
goals – prevent corruption and build a democracy with adequate checks
and balances – must be accomplished.

The longer it takes to build an unbreakable democracy and relegate
Thaksin to the eternal sidelines of Thai politics, the less likely the
government will achieve this result. The irony of the situation is that
the military-supported government’s actions to suppress Thaksin’s
impact – damaging relations with Singapore and censoring coverage – end
up boosting his popularity. Only concrete and visible movement towards
democratic institutions and equitable economic policies will prevent
Thaksin from returning to power.

The hope is that the generals will allow democracy to be restored
without manipulation and interruption. The fear is that the cycle of
coups will be perpetuated and democracy will never be realized while
the monarch and military retain their powers. A “democratic coup” is
easier said than done.

David Kampf is a
political and economic researcher primarily based in New York and
Kigali, Rwanda, and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus
(www.fpif.org).

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