To Return to a Democratic Thailand

 The Wall Street Journal Home Page

By THAKSIN SHINAWATRA
September 19, 2007

Photo: http://www.daylife.com

One year ago today I was in New York, preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of my nation. I was filled with pride as I looked forward to delivering my remarks.

One year before, I had been overwhelmingly re-elected as prime minister of Thailand. Thanks to the people of my nation, I was the first leader in the near 100-year history of Thailand to be not just democratically elected, but democratically re-elected. Under my administration, we had cut poverty almost in half, provided universal access to affordable health care for the first time, balanced the budget and paid off our debts to the International Monetary Fund. In addressing the United Nations, I intended to emphasize to the world the success and maturity of our democracy.

I was never able to deliver my remarks, however, because I awoke on the morning of Sept. 19 to the news that my government — and Thailand’s democratic constitution — had been overthrown in a military coup.

The coup came as a shock to me and to most Thais. Democracy appeared to have become well entrenched in Thailand following adoption of the Constitution of 1997. Also known as the “People’s Constitution,” this charter was universally acclaimed as the most democratic constitution in the history of Thailand.

The people of Thailand have the same democratic aspirations and expectations as the people of other mature nations, and they will not rest until these are restored to them. Regrettably, the military rulers in Bangkok have spent most of the past year worrying not about promoting our nation’s economic development or restoring basic rights to the Thai people, but rather about preventing me or anyone sharing my political philosophy from returning to political power.

In reflecting on the past year, I am appalled by the suffering that has been inflicted on the Thai people by the junta’s misplaced priorities. I have made clear to all who will listen that I have no desire to again hold political office in Thailand. As a patriot whose first loyalty is to my King and country, I wish only to return to a democratic Thailand to live in peace with my family.

The junta justified the coup in part on the assertion that my administration was corrupt. Once in power, they created a government agency whose sole purpose was to validate this claim by finding me and my family guilty of some form of financial malfeasance. After investigating me for a year, none of the original charges has been sustained, so they have concocted new ones. In so doing, they have had to invent new interpretations of Thai law with respect to investment and taxation.

 

These new legal interpretations cannot be applied only to me, however, which has jeopardized Thailand’s hard-earned reputation for predictability and respect for the rule of law. As a result, foreign investment — long a principal engine of Thailand’s economic growth — has begun to dry up.

To try to stop me or anyone sharing my enthusiasm for free markets and democracy from ever regaining power in a free election, the junta has banned my former political party, forbidden over 100 of the most prominent political figures in Thailand from running for political office, and frozen my financial assets in Thailand. For most of the past year, Thailand has been under martial law, with freedom of the press restricted and activity by political parties severely limited.

The junta appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for Thailand, stacking it with hand-picked bureaucrats. The committee’s top priority was to reduce the role of the Thai people and their elected representatives in national decision making. The constitution they produced needlessly reduces the size of the lower house of parliament to 480 from 500 members, the size of the Senate to 160 from 200 members, and redraws parliamentary districts in a manner designed to diminish the voting strength of the 35 provinces in northern and northeastern Thailand that have been most strongly opposed to the coup.

In addition, the new constitution strips the Thai people of the power to elect the Senate. Instead, senators will henceforth be appointed by unelected selection committees. The antidemocratic role of the Senate and the judiciary is amplified by features empowering the Senate to appoint heads of independent agencies and to remove the publicly elected prime minister.

In a referendum last month, an unexpectedly large number of Thais voted against adoption of the constitution, despite severe restrictions on organized opposition to the referendum imposed by the junta during the campaign.

There will now be a national election on Dec. 23, which the junta wants the world to accept as free and fair. As campaigning begins, however, the junta continues to apply martial law in the 35 northern and northeastern provinces. In those provinces, it remains illegal for more than 10 persons to gather for political purposes — though this rule and others are rarely enforced against political parties favored by the junta. To ensure itself a free hand, the junta is resisting efforts by the European Union and others to deploy election monitors.

The world appears inclined to accept all these departures from democratic norms. The explanation is as simple as it is troubling. The international community is so disgusted by the junta’s mismanagement that it wants it to pass from the scene as soon as possible. Rather than quarrel over the details of democracy, the world appears ready to look the other way so as to provide no reason for the junta to delay the Dec. 23 election. In a bizarre twist, the junta’s greatest weaknesses — its incompetence and unpopularity — have been transformed into its greatest short-term strengths.

The world is miscalculating, however, if it thinks there can be stability in Thailand without true democracy. The voters of northern and northeastern Thailand who the junta wants to disenfranchise may be poor, but they will not be denied their voice — nor will the millions of other Thais whose rights are being restricted.

We will not have stability, democracy and development in Thailand until we have genuine national reconciliation. Needless to say, national reconciliation will not be achieved at gunpoint or through rigged elections, but rather when our generals and politicians finally put the national interest above their own narrow interests.

Mr. Thaksin is a former prime minister of Thailand.

 

To Return to Democratic Thailand: Thaksin Shinawatra

Warnings over Thai democracy on coup anniversary

AFP

Sep 19, 2007

BANGKOK (AFP) — On the first anniversary Wednesday of a coup that overthrew Thailand’s longest-serving elected prime minister, activists and politicians warned the country’s return to full democracy is under threat.

Deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra led the charge, accusing the international community of ignoring the junta’s “departures from democratic norms.”

In an opinion piece posted on The Wall Street Journal’s website, Thaksin accused the military-backed government of spending more time worrying about preventing him and his followers from returning to power than on economic development and restoring the rights of the people.

In line with promises by army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, elections are to be held on December 23.

“The international community is so disgusted by the junta’s mismanagement that it wants it to pass from the scene as soon as possible,” Thaksin wrote.

“Rather than quarrel over the details of democracy, the world appears ready to look the other way so as to provide no reason for the junta to delay the December 23 election.”

Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said he overthrew the twice-elected Thaksin on September 19 last year to end political turmoil, reunite a divided nation and rid Thailand of corrupt politicians.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the military-installed government had taken few steps to keep its promises to protect human rights.

Prospects for the return to an elected government through free and fair elections remained uncertain, it added.

“Thaksin’s contempt for human rights and democracy was evident, but Thailand is worse off because of the coup,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Martial law remains in many areas of the country, there are greater restrictions on the media, and many key institutions such as the parliament, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the Election Commission have become tools of military rule.”

The announcement of the December election date in late August came just one week after 58 percent of voters nationwide approved a new constitution, written by a committee hand-picked by the army.

But voters in northeastern Thailand, a pillar of support for Thaksin, rejected it.

“The new constitution is actually a step backwards for Thailand,” said Adams.

The Student Federation of Thailand said the coup “was merely power-grabbing among elites” and said the junta’s reasons for staging the putsch have not been borne out.

Chaturon Chaisang, a former leader of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, said the junta has failed to justify its coup and only succeeded in damaging the economy and setting democracy backwards.

“A year after the coup, people have received only one thing, an undemocratic constitution,” Chaturon said at a press conference.

“There is no sign that the new election will be free and fair.”

From his exile in Britain, Thaksin told the BBC he would return to Thailand after the vote. He questioned the junta’s use of power, accusing them of stifling opposition.

Thai Rak Thai was accused of electoral fraud and disbanded by a junta-backed court in May.

“For most of the past year, Thailand has been under martial law, with freedom of the press restricted and activity by political parties severely limited,” Thaksin said.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), based in Bangkok, said the environment for media and free expression remains compromised.

Surayud told reporters he was ready to accept criticism and vowed to improve.

Responding to Thaksin’s comments, he reiterated Thailand is working hard to restore democracy.

Coup leader Sonthi told local radio that only those “who are not fully informed” would call the coup a total failure.

The government announced late Wednesday that General Anupong Paojinda, a key player in the coup, will replace Sonthi as army chief.

Sonthi faces mandatory retirement at the end of September but will remain at the helm of the junta.

Analysts saw Anupong as a moderate choice.

 

Sep 27, 2007

Thaksin criticises military junta that ousted him

Mr Thaksin also criticised the international community, which he said had remained uncritical of the military in Thailand. — PHOTO: AP

LONDON – A YEAR after being ousted from power, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra criticised his country’s military junta and laid out his plans to run his British soccer club and engage in charitable activities.

‘Since the overthrow of my government, the military junta has acted in the interests of a small group of urban elites and not in the interests of the people of Thailand,’ Mr Thaksin said on Wednesday.

‘It ripped up the people’s constitution and replaced it with a text designed to preserve military power and stifle legitimate democracy.’

On Tuesday, Thailand’s Supreme Court suspended a corruption trial of the fugitive deposed prime minister until authorities can bring him to court.

Mr Thaksin, a 58-year-old billionaire, and his wife Pojamarn failed to appear in court in Bangkok for the first hearing of the trial in connection with her purchase of a prime piece of Bangkok real estate in 2003, when Mr Thaksin was prime minister.

Mr Thaksin was deposed in a bloodless coup on Sept 19, 2006, after months of popular demonstrations calling for him to step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power. He was in New York at the time and has not returned to Thailand since then.

He and his family now live in self-imposed exile in London, where he owns the Manchester City soccer team.

During his speech and a question-and-answer session, Mr Thaksin also criticised the international community, which he said had remained uncritical of the military in Thailand.

‘The Thai people have had to suffer in silence and wait patiently for the promised return of the democracy and prosperity they deserve,’ the former prime minister said.

He repeated that he is innocent of all the charges, but said he would not return to Thailand before a democratically elected government was in place. He emphasised that if he did go back it would be as a private citizen, not as a politician.

In the meantime, Mr Thaksin said he is enjoying his life in London with his family.

Without giving many details, he said he would set up a charitable foundation. ‘I may invite some others, ex-leaders, to join me,’ he said. — AP

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