The Generals’ Blunder

washingtonpost.com

The Generals’ Blunder

Another junta stumbles, this time in Thailand.


Sunday, June 10, 2007; Page B06

THAILAND’S ARMY made a serious mistake
last September when it launched a coup to remove the democratically
elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. For the following nine months
it has demonstrated — again — why rule by the military doesn’t work.
And now it has compounded its original error.

The generals’
mistake was to think that the political turbulence caused by Mr.
Thaksin, a bad prime minister who was loathed by the urban elite but
beloved by Thailand’s rural population, could be disposed of by sending
him into exile. He duly relocated to London — where he recently
created a stir by bidding to buy a famous soccer team — but his
millions of supporters remained behind. Political uncertainty and the
bumbling interim government appointed by the military have proved
costly: Investment in the economy has fallen, and a Muslim insurgency
in the south of the country has grown worse.

The military has promised democratic elections by the end of the
year, following a referendum on a new constitution. But Mr. Thaksin’s
party, Thai Rak Thai, looked like it might win. That prompted the
latest miscalculation: a ruling last month by a tribunal created by the
military that outlawed the party and banned more than 100 of its
leaders from politics for five years. The rival Democrat Party, which
set the stage for the coup by disrupting Bangkok with street
demonstrations, was excused from sanction.

Luckily for the
generals, the tribunal decision did not immediately cause unrest. But
Mr. Thaksin’s supporters still have not disappeared. Some have vowed to
form a new party under another name to carry on his legacy. Others may
vent their disapproval of the military by voting against the
constitution, which is being written by yet another unelected body.
There may be good reason to do so: The draft charter includes a number
of undemocratic provisions, including one that mandates a Senate not
chosen by popular election.

When and if elections finally are
held, there will be no way for the military to ensure against another
victory by Mr. Thaksin’s surrogates, if the vote is free and fair. If
another party is propelled into office by manipulation, it may lack the
legitimacy to restore confidence in the economy or combat the
insurgency. The only way to purge Thailand of Mr. Thaksin’s influence
was for his policies to fail and for voters to reject them in an
election. That’s why the military intervention led the country into a
blind alley; an exit will not be easy to find.

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