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Thailand - Coup or Countercoup?

| 10 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

I asked my friend Kat, who has lived and worked in Thailand for the past year and a half, to explain what she sees as going on there. Though she's currently visiting in the States, she has her perspective and her contacts. Here's her answer:

Last night -- Thai time -- Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, apparently attempted to make his third stab at assuring his position as head of the Thai government. Unlike his other attempts, it may be that after this, he will retain no power or chance of assuring it in the future.

Thaksin is the elected prime minister of Thailand. He came into office some four years ago riding high on the rhetoric and promises of the TRT (Thai Rak Thai - meaning literally "Thais love Thais") party. As it was formed, the party represented all that was good about Thailand in traditional terms, but also represented the Thai desire to bring that nation back to the forefront of southeastern Asian development. Thais are particularly nationalistic, and as such are very proud of their culture and accomplishments. In a promising nation with an abundance of talented people, the picture painted in TRT political speeches seemed entirely possible to Thais, and the promises of the party brought Thaksin and TRT into power.

Thaksin was a very promising figure to Thais. He was a native son who had completed his education in the USA, had returned to Thailand, and had created a telecom company that led the nation and had expanded regionally. He was, to most Thais, a thoughtful and promising personality who appeared to be trustworthy.

But to most Thais today, that appearance was just a front. Shortly after taking office, Thaksin pressed to pass laws that limited competition to his own company. This allowed him to expand his business with little opposition, thought many people and members of Thailand's legislature complained. As a result, he transferred his personal holdings to his family, to present the appearance he had nothing to gain by the laws he pressed forward. After his (family's) company became powerful on a regional basis, he entered into a sales agreement, but performed his sale through Singapore, allowing him to collect billions in profits outside of Thai taxation laws. When this information became available to the Thai people, a growing number of Thais began to call for Thaksin to step down.

Thaksin responded as if he had done nothing wrong. As if he was being informed of some outside breach or faith and law, he instead passed laws to ban other businesses doing exactly what he had done himself. It was as if he had no belief or understanding that he had done those things he was then denouncing, and in fact publicly declared those angry with him to be wrong and himself to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

That didn't sit very well with Thais, who value honesty, character and face above everything. Thailand is a Buddhist society, believing in a sort of yin-yang form of good and bad, or basically "what goes around, comes around." Therefore a leader who is a cheat, or worse, a liar, is only going to bring bad luck on the rest of the country.

Elected officials in the legislature began to complain, and complain loudly. Others outside of the government began to write and complain as well.

This started coming to a sort of crest late last year. By January, Thaksin had taken advantage of a loophole in the Thai constitution and abolished the elected legislature that had begun to call for investigations. In effect, in response to protests against his own actions and those of members of his party, he completely removed the elected government of Thailand.

In abolishing of the legislature, Thaksin took advantage of his position and weaknesses in the Thai constitution yet again. According to the constitution, it became the prime minister's job to create an interim or "caretaker" government. This allowed him to legally step into the position of head of the "caretaker" government, which essentially preserved his leadership. In this position he was required to appoint a committee for elections, and then set dates for elections. His solution was to appoint TRT cronies and call for snap elections, to be held in March.

By February, the first major protests were being held in Bangkok by outspoken critics of Thaksin and the money-oriented government he led. These protests in BKK were week-long events, with thousands showing up. The main complaint of these protests was alleged actions by Thaksin or the TRT, and the snap elections that most members of the opposition claimed were to be held too early, leaving opposition parties without candidates to put on the ballots. Thaksin ignored the protests.

So when the elections came around, the people responded in the only way they really could, that is, by essentially boycotting them. Another feature of Thai constitutional law holds that candidates without 30% of the registered vote cannot be certified for office. At the end of the elections, TRT candidates who ran unopposed collected less than 15% of the available vote, so some 23 positions within the legislature were left unfilled. Legal challenges were immediately filed, and eventually Thai courts ruled the election to be invalid. On top of that, accusations about the conduct of the elections had been filed against Thaksin's election committee for election fraud.

In the meantime, the King of Thailand, the most revered man in the nation, had celebrated his 60th coronation jubilee in June, with world dignitaries and every Thai who could possibly come attending. During a rare speech to the nation, he urged both the Thai people and the government to look inwards for what was right, and to strive to do those things that were necessary to keep the strength and quality of the Thai people. At about the same time, he also urged Thaksin to make right on elections. Subsequently, Thaksin bowed to the wishes of his more respected leader, and called for new elections to be held in October, even while claiming those preceding them were valid.

Vast quantities of political BS have passed between then and now. But one prevailing feature has been Thaksin's attempt to proclaim innocence, and to legitimize himself and his government. This has gone as far as to point an accusing finger, lightly veiled, at the King himself, as the cause for his and his party's problems. This hasn't sat well with Thais, who do not tolerate insults to their king well, especially from other Thais. Meanwhile, in August, all three members of Thaksin's self-appointed election committee were found guilty of election fraud and sentenced to some 15 years or so in jail.

My understandings from my boss and friends in Thailand has been this. While Thaksin has been in NYC for U.N. meetings, members of the military and police loyal to him have moved to arrest and push aside opposition members prior to the coming elections in a sort of coup. This has been expected by other members of the military and police loyal to the King and the Thai people. In response, they have moved in, sealed off the government house of the interim government, have sealed off the home of Thaksin, and have placed guards around the palace of the King, presumably for his protection.

The soldiers doing this are wearing or showing yellow flags or ribbons from uniforms and equipment, which is a sign of devotion to the King. This suggests that they will hold themselves loyal to the King, who has opposition to Thaksin and a well known loyalty and affection towards his people and fully supports their efforts towards a workable democracy.

I suspect that Thaksin made his move while he was out of the country because there was a good chance he might not be successful. For whatever reason, he does not share the humility towards his fellow Thais that most have. In a country where shame is incredibly horrible, he feels none, though he is literally buried in it.

I also believe the army has stepped in to stop what has been impossible to stop otherwise. If the Thaksin of the past can be compared to that of the future, the October election will be no more fair or valid than that which proceeded it. And the Constitution provides for nothing beyond more of the same. Thaksin has made the faults of the present constitution abundantly clear to most Thais, and I believe this is why the military has, for the moment, abolished it.

At present, the majority of the army and police appear to be in charge of the government, and they in turn are apparently sworn in loyalty to the King. The King in turn is dedicated to a democratic Thailand, so unless fighting occurs between the army and other armed portions of the government, most things should be calm. Fighting cannot be ruled out, however, because Thaksin gave substantial amounts of money to police forces and other armed security forces within the Thai government, apparently to preserve their support.

The news will tell you that many Thais support Thaksin. This is true. He is supported in certain parts of the business world, but more importantly, within the more poor and rural portions of Thailand. The business support is to be expected, as he threw open doors for certain supporters. But in the farm portions of Thailand where people are the most poor, he is appreciated because he stepped into the place vacated by the King as the ruler has grown older and less able to travel.

The King and royal family have a long tradition of working alongside farmers and laborers to improve their production techniques and provided additional help when necessary. These projects still hold the attention of the royal family, but Thaksin stepped in to present himself as a representative of the King. Traditions die hard, and Thaksin wisely took advantage of that. In these areas, education levels are typically primary grades and below, so political sophistication is out of the question. If a representative of the King can come to the village and show a new way to help reduce water loss in ponds during the hot season, then he's beloved, no matter how many baht he cheated the people out of in a telecom deal.

Hopefully this helps. It's hard to know that much right now, even for me. TV coverage is under strict control at the moment, but Thais aren't stupid. They find ways to learn about what's going on, including by talking to friends in the U.S. So if anything of great interest comes up that you don't see in the news, I'll pass it on.

Also, let me say, I'm not worried. In my opinion this has been coming for months. Thaksin has made it almost impossible for the Thai people to get him out of office. I consider that the army is doing nothing more than carrying out by arms what the people have been unable to do by themselves.

- 30 -

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: September 20, 2006 6:12 AM
Thailand Update from GZ Expat, Part II
Excerpt: We have several friends in Thailand...and I am sure they are all OK. Here is a great re-cap of why Thailand and the Thai people are at this point in their history...with this quote standing out to me...For whatever reason, he (Thaksin) does not share t...
Tracked: September 21, 2006 4:45 PM
Excerpt: While reading about the recent Thai military coup, I was struck by a lack of explanation in the MSM. The best I could find were vague implications that Thailand's president was a "staunch Bush administration supporter", and that, somehow,...

10 Comments

Is this about abuse of office, or the (Muslim) military chief's desire to give jihadis in the south what they want?

The former is a useful cover, yes, that may even have the benefit of being true.

General Sonthi is the real puzzle here, but not because he might 'give jihadis what they want.' He's an ethnic Thai Muslim, and rose to his position mostly through excellence (and only a little bit at the very end because he was Muslim, and they wanted a Muslim to show their good faith). The terrorists in the South are ethnic Malays, and the movement is really about establishing an independent kingdom for Malays in the southern provinces, where ethnic Malays are in a strong majority and where they historically had a kingdom.

An aside -- the question of whether the southern militants are tied into the international jihadist movement is one that got a great deal of attention at a Johns Hopkins SAIS seminar last spring. I was there, as was the former Prime Minster of Thailand, Anand Panyarachun, and numerous leaders and academics from within Thailand, as well as a few people who were experts on Thailand but lived elsewhere. The Thai government/military position has been that they can't prove it, and have no firm evidence about it -- Anand assured us this was the case. However, I think the best evidence is that there is some involvement.

To return to General Sonthi, though -- a military coup isn't terribly surprising. As Kat noted, Thaksin has been a little too clever in terms of shutting out the opposition. His fake resignation from last spring was remarkable, in that he said he had resigned -- and then that he was only taking a break -- and then that no, he had resigned again -- and then that he would be back -- etc. You would expect people to insist on some clarity in the question of who was actually in charge of the government, but Thaksin seemed to get away with using a fake resignation to let tensions subside -- and then coming right back.

What does surprise me is to find General Sonthi at the head of the coup. He's seemed to be dedicated to the principle of keeping the military out of politics -- something that Thailand has been proud to be able to do lately. It's been a regular topic in the Thai press for years, and whenever General Sonthi spoke to the issue, he was firm in his statements that the era of military coups in Thailand was over, and that the present difficulties would have to be resolved politically.

Other military men often got angry in public with Thaksin, mostly for using the king's prestige for himself. Sonthi, though, always seemed to be level-headed about keeping the peace between the PM and the military, while making clear that his final loyalty was to the King (who seems like the sort of king to whom one might rightly be loyal).

When push came to shove, obviously Sonthi sided with the coup. That's probably to the good -- the man has always impressed me. Still, I do find it surprising. Of course, I haven't been watching Thailand closely for a couple of months, as the contract I was working on ended in July. It may be there were signs I missed b/c I was no longer looking for them. To me, though, it is a bit of a surprise to find Sonthi where he is this morning.

That's an interesting insight, Grim.

So far, I haven't heard any Islamist externation from Sonthi, so I'm not very concerned about him.

Hi,

The background info on Thailand's inner workings and General Sondhi (is it dhi or thi?) is quite illuminating. It's funny because a couple of days ago I watched a TV interview with PM Thaksin and he seems and has always seemed to be an amiable chap, well maybe not.

I just need to ask, you stated that General Sondhi is a level headed man and generally apolitical, won't his action give credence or support to Islam opposition in the south at a time when things are quite dicey? Secondly, why does Thailand seems to have a preponderance towards coups (though bloodless?, 17 btw 1932 and 1991)?

As someone who used to live and work in Thailand (Phuket), I'll second what Kat said. My contacts are saying much the same.

I'm not very worried either. I was kind of expecting a coup, as a matter of fact. I couldn't see any other way they could clean things up. Now let's just hope they do clean things up.

why does Thailand seems to have a preponderance towards coups

Samuel P. Huntington categorized Thailand as a country that is subject to guardian coups

These coups have been described as musical chairs. The stated aim of this form of coup is to improve public order, efficiency, or to end corruption. There is usually no fundamental shift in the structure of power, and the leaders of these types of coups generally portray their actions as a temporary and unfortunate necessity. . . . Many nations with guardian coups undergo many shifts between civilian and military governments.

That last sentence is important, these countries (like Pakistan and Turkey) become dependent upon the military and fail to develop political checks on impropriety.

Actually - Thailand is doing pretty well - this is the longest they've gone without a coup. (longest previous period, IIRC was 1958-1971. And at least they do have a check, even if it isn't political.

I think that's a good way of looking at it, Kathy.

I worked in Thailand for two months (one month each on two separate occasions) and the culture struck me as vibrant, honorable, cooperative, and competitive, in that general order. It's a very complex society, utterly fascinating in its details.

The default state for Thais, it seems, is to be friendly and helpful to everyone, up to the point where someone gives one offense too many (and make no mistake, Thais may forgive but they do not forget); then to rain holy hell down upon the offender.

Do NOT get a Thai thoroughly pissed at you.

(Of course these are all generalizations, and subject to all the caveats generalizations demand.)

These traits, I think, make Democracy in Thailand an extremely delicate thing. We're used to a much more rough-and-tumble give-and-take I think. Thais (again, just an outsider's impression) would look on politics as usual in America as incredibly barbaric.

Thaksin sounds like the perfect snake-oil salesman to take advantage of all the cultural loopholes to secure and abuse power.

What is clear is that Thais see in the king a symbol of all the things Thais idealize about their own culture, and the amazing thing is he has seemed to live up to the position. When he criticized the political mess that Thaksin has made, I have to think that was tacit permission to the military to get involved.

As someone who loved his time in Thailand, I hope things stay peaceful. (I'm pretty sure they will, but there is power and money involved....). One way or the other, I'm sure that the next Constitution -- and there will almost certainly be one drafted soon -- will come closer to a stable roadmap for a robust Thai democracy. Thai tend to get things done.

One questions:

Is a coup leader whos has repeatedly denied coups until one week before HIS - trustworthy?

Sort of Kitman I'd say

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