Letter from Thailand: Trying to figure out how to make the transition from a coup-led government to democracy

International Herald Tribune

By Richard Bernstein

Published: July 29, 2007

BANGKOK: About a week ago, the Thai press reported on a 30-year-old man, apparently not a brilliant one, who, for unexplained reasons, was tormenting an elephant. He hit the animal, according to the newspapers, whereupon the usually placid beast wrapped the man in his trunk, slammed him down, and trampled him to death.

This may be stretching a point, but it seemed to me, visiting Thailand after an absence of a few years, that the elephant-kills-man story is a pretty good metaphor for the delicate state of Thai politics these days, almost a year after an army coup overthrew a democratically elected government that had run afoul of important segments of Thai society.

The ruling coup’s leadership is the elephant in this scheme of things, striving to be a useful beast, indeed making plans to exit the stage as soon as its plans for a constitutional referendum and new elections, all by the end of the year, have been carried out.

But then there are those people angry about military rule and, in some cases, allied to the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that was overthrown last September.

They have been trying, in the name of democracy, to get all Thailand sufficiently riled up to attack the elephant.

Last week, a group of anti-coup protesters, apparently frustrated that months of earlier, quieter protests had produced no results, laid siege to the home of a former army chief and prime minister, Prem Tinsulanonda.

Tinsulanonda is president of the special council that advises this country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The demonstrators accused Prem of having masterminded the coup. The protest, by about 5,000 people, got out of hand and a couple of hundred people, both protesters and police officers, were injured, a few of them seriously.

And so, after tolerating the protests until then, the elephant reacted. On Thursday, nine leaders of the anti-coup protest movement, which is called United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, were sent to jail.

Among those seized by the police were a former member of Parliament, a current member of the National Human Rights Commission, and a former chief justice of the Criminal Court – all charged with various offenses, including blocking traffic and using loudspeakers without permission.

And yet, despite what would seem to be an act of repression, there doesn’t seem to be much of a groundswell of support for the opponents of the coup.

And that would seem to sum up the paradox of this country, which is both attached to its usually functioning democracy but, it would seem, ready to accept military rule from time to time.

This is the case even though there are lots of reasons the Thais might actually be unhappy about the coup – not least that the usual way in a democracy to get rid of an unsatisfactory leader is defeat at the polls rather than summoning the army from its barracks.

Moreover, if the commentators are to be believed, the junta, having remained on the scene for almost a year now, is in danger of wearing out its welcome. In addition, there are serious doubts about the proposed new constitution – Thailand’s 18th since the absolute monarchy came to an end in 1932 – that the junta is asking Thais to approve in a referendum scheduled for Aug. 19.

The document essentially takes power away from the legislature and gives it to the bureaucracy, including the military.

And the new constitution might be coupled with a new security law, now making its way through the legislature, that, in the view of critics, will seriously undermine civil rights.

Despite all this, however, and except for the few hundred people who showed up to protest the arrests of the nine anti-coup demonstration leaders on Thursday, not very many Thais – at least not in Bangkok – seem to be all that alarmed, and polls indicate that the constitution will be adopted.

As one commentator, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, put it in an article in The Bangkok Post on Friday, the protesting group “has gained little traction on the ground.”

So what is going on here? Why isn’t the public angrier at the abrogation of democracy? Why have the protesters failed to make a dent?

By most accounts, the problem this time was not so much the Thai system itself but the character and personality of Thaksin, who was a sort of Silvio Berlusconi of Thai politics, a fabulously wealthy media mogul who found his way to the top of the political heap.

Thaksin was very popular with Thailand’s farmers and other poor, who thought he was helping them. That’s how he won three elections – although, with the opposition boycotting the last one, its results were nullified by the Thai Supreme Court.

But he roused the opposition of Thailand’s Bangkok-based elites and many ordinary middle-class people – undermining the checks and balances by putting his own cronies and relatives into positions of power – and he managed to sell off a major family-owned company to Singapore without paying taxes, or so the accusation goes. What it all adds up to is the paradoxical feeling among the ranks of Thaksin opponents that the junta seemed less of a threat to the country’s long-term prospects for democracy than the democratically elected Thaksin was.

“We just say, ‘Thanks for getting rid of the thieves, and now leave behind something good,’ ” Mechai Viravaidya, a former senator and campaigner for family planning and rural development, said.

Some Thais believe that the current condition is all part of a learning process.

Until now, this country has always alternated between civilian governments that turn out to be weak or corrupt, or too authoritarian for local taste, and that elephant. It would be a historic change if next time around the beast could be kept out of the picture.

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