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Dark Days for Democracy

12 minute read
Hannah Beech | Bangkok

She came prepared for a violent protest and ended up staying for a bloodless coup. Charas-sri Kasetkala traveled 12 hours by train from Thailand’s southern Songkhla province to join a planned rally last Wednesday designed to pressure caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to step down. In the spring, daily demonstrations by tens of thousands of people in Bangkok had nearly forced the embattled leader out of office. Early last week, the masses wanted to try again, despite rumors that forces loyal to Thaksin might try to break up the protests. Charas-sri’s complaints about the billionaire PM were legion. Like many in Thailand, the 50-year-old was disgusted by the administration’s alleged corruption and nepotism, exemplified by the tax-free sale of Thaksin’s family-business stake to a Singaporean conglomerate for $1.9 billion. But Charas-sri, who brought her young grandson to Bangkok with her, was mostly outraged by the Thai leader’s guns-blazing approach in the nation’s largely Muslim south, a policy she blamed for the escalating violence that has claimed 1,700 lives since 2004. “I don’t want my grandson to grow up in an unfair society,” says the Muslim housewife. “People were so scared of Thaksin they had to follow him like buffalo.”

But just hours after Charas-sri arrived in the Thai capital last Tuesday, army tanks rolled through monsoon showers into central Bangkok, achieving what months of peaceful protests could not. The country’s army chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who earlier this year had declared coups in Thailand “a thing of the past,” had wrested control of the nation from Thaksin. The ousted Prime Minister was stranded in New York City, having just wrapped up a speech titled “The Future of Democracy in Asia.” Martial law was declared and the constitution scrapped, casting a shadow over Thailand’s democratic future. Yet, as soldiers flooded into the Thai capital, the mood turned almost giddy. Women in miniskirts posed for pictures next to tanks, while soldiers lounged in the gun turrets. Not a shot was fired in the country’s 18th coup in 74 years. Standing with hundreds of revelers outside Bangkok’s army headquarters, Charas-sri cried tears of joy at the demise of “Square Face,” as Thaksin has been dubbed by his detractors. “This is a gift from God,” said the headscarfed Charas-sri. In a nation where the gap between rural poor and urban rich has only grown more divisive, the diverse crowd beside her was remarkably unified in its elation at Thaksin’s removal. “The thing about Thailand is that we execute our coups so pleasantly,” says Supavud Saicheua, head of research at Phatra Securities in Bangkok. “There’s no stigma attached to coups. They’re almost seen as a natural part of the political process.”

International reaction to the military takeover, though, wasn’t as upbeat. The European Union exhorted the military to “give way to the democratically elected political government,” while Australian Prime Minister John Howard deemed the coup “a throwback to a past I had hoped Asia had emerged from.” Indeed, 15 years had passed since Thailand’s last coup, and the country’s young democracy was regarded as a model for its neighbors. Certainly, the putsch leaders, with their neatly pressed uniforms and chestfuls of medals, didn’t score points overseas when they followed up a promise to restore power to the people with an indefinite prohibition on political activity, including any gathering of more than five people. Responding to the order, Korn Chatikavanij, the deputy secretary-general of the opposition Democrat Party, canceled an interview with TIME and declined to comment on the nation’s political future. The media was also ordered to refrain from reporting anything that could be considered harmful to the coup leaders, who have dubbed themselves the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDR).

The coup had been executed with soldierly precision, but it’s the dark side of martial rigor that’s provoking concern. “The military may be good at fighting, but it may not be good at administration or governance,” says Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok. “We don’t want to escape from the tiger only to end up with the crocodile.” Governance in Thailand has never been just about the tiger and the crocodile. Unlike in the West, where checks and balances on the abuse of power exist within the democratic system, the corrective mechanism in Thai government has tended to come from outside, usually through military intervention. Refereeing this tug of war between officials and officers is the country’s beloved 78-year-old constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose every whisper is dissected for political meaning and carries the weight of divine mandate. Last Wednesday, he made himself clear, endorsing the new rulers and asking the populace to obey their orders. The night of the coup, Sonthi had already signaled his loyalty to the King by arming his soldiers with yellow ribbons—the color associated with the monarch—that were tied around the muzzles of their rifles.

Such fealty to the King contrasted with mounting criticism in recent months that Thaksin had burnished his reputation at the monarch’s expense. The former Prime Minister’s rural-relief programs, for instance, vied for attention with the King’s agricultural pet projects. Then, over the summer, Thaksin complained that “a charismatic figure”—widely interpreted to be either the King or his top adviser Prem Tinsulanonda—was trying to force him out of office. Although Thaksin ranks as the most popular Prime Minister in Thai history—he was swept into office a record three times courtesy of his rural power base—the Bangkok �lite resented what they perceived as a l�se majest� attack. Last week, the six coup leaders—four military chiefs, the national police boss and the head of the National Security Council—went on to accuse Thaksin of using his position to enrich himself and his supporters; they also claimed he was eroding the very democratic institutions that should have limited his power. Certainly, Thaksin had taken advantage of the country’s 1997 constitution—which strengthened the executive branch’s authority—to fill the electoral commission, courts and other supposedly independent institutions with his associates. Thailand’s democratically elected leader also allegedly used his position to pressure journalists, academics and even bankers who released pessimistic economic forecasts.

Careful cultivation of power is hardly unusual for a Thai leader, but Thaksin erred by alienating a competing power structure: the military. Having trained with the army before joining the police and later refashioning himself as an entrepreneur, Thaksin promoted many fellow members of his cadet class to key military positions, leapfrogging more veteran officers. His priority after returning from abroad was to oversee a military reshuffle slated for this month or next; the changes could have sidelined Sonthi and his acolytes before an election later this year that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was widely expected to win. The timing of the army putsch may well have hinged on preventing the military reordering, as well as pre-empting violence during Wednesday’s scheduled rallies. Two of Thaksin’s deputy ministers, who were detained by the CDR late last week, are suspected of planning to bus in pro-Thaksin masses to Bangkok in hopes of engineering a violent confrontation with anti-PM protestors. “We’re sorry that it came to a coup,” Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told TIME a day before the ban on political commentary was announced. “But this proves that Thaksin has been destroying the democratic fabric of Thailand.”

But is a military junta really the best way to repair the fabric of democracy? Sonthi has promised to hold fresh elections, though not for at least another year. Within two weeks, he said, the CDR would install an interim Prime Minister and begin drafting a new constitution to sew up the loopholes Thaksin exploited. Whom the generals choose—and how much autonomy he’s allowed—may dictate whether the coup will be regarded by Thais as a necessary evil or just a power grab by ambitious generals. So far, candidates for the caretaker job include: Supachai Panitchpakdi, former head of the World Trade Organization; the Supreme Administrative Court president Ackaratorn Chularat; central-bank governor Pridiyathorn Devakula; and Chatumongkol Sonakul, a past central-bank governor. With the economy already slowing, much is riding on the generals’ choice. “Thailand has to pick someone who meets international standards,” says Sompop Manarangsan, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. “If it doesn’t, our economy will be affected because any instability gives foreign investment a reason to look elsewhere.”

The CDR and the new Prime Minister must also deal with the intensifying sectarian violence in Thailand’s largely Muslim south. Just three days before the coup, bombings in the city of Hat Yai claimed five lives. Although separatist Muslim groups have been operating in the region for decades, bloodshed has escalated in the past couple of years, not least because of Thaksin’s confrontational approach—he ramped up troop numbers and eschewed dialogue with local Muslim leaders. By contrast, Sonthi, who is the country’s first Muslim army chief, has advocated negotiation over force. The general’s rise to power last week drew approval from several insurgent groups. “Sonthi is a Muslim, therefore we believe we can negotiate a fair deal with him,” Pak Abu, head of internal affairs for PULO Bersatu, one of the main insurgent groups, told TIME. “This turn of events will have a positive impact on the problems in southern Thailand.” Still, Sonthi and the new caretaker leader will have to convince more hardline generals of the virtues of a policy that favors carrots over sticks. Thailand’s Buddhist majority may need convincing, too. “To solve the southern problem, you need to bring the public on board and have a debate,” says Duncan McCargo, a southern Thailand expert at the University of Leeds. “But having a coup and clamping down on the media is not the way to promote openness because it gets people nervous about what they can and cannot say.”

For all the relief in Bangkok and the south, disappointment reigned in parts of Thailand’s countryside, where Thaksin draws his most vociferous support. Even his detractors concede he enjoyed vast popularity in the countryside because of his village-investment funds, debt-relief schemes and health-care programs. Perhaps fearing a backlash against the coup, the CDR has specifically banned “farmers and laborers” from organizing political activity. “I feel sorry for Thailand’s poor people and farmers,” says sausage seller Ong-art Pamonata, who lives in Nakhorn Ratchasima in the northeast, a Thaksin stronghold. “Nobody will take care of us like Thaksin has.” Chances are the new government won’t be able to match Thaksin’s reputation as a savior to the poor. “In six months, if the farmers think the money is going back to the rich in Bangkok instead of to the countryside, they will be very angry,” says Wichai Turongpun, director of the National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok.

If the Thai peasantry expected an immediate counterattack from their populist hero, they were disappointed. By week’s end, Thaksin—photographed looking strangely cheerful—was holed up at a luxury London residence, where he said he was taking a “well-deserved rest.” But he may not stay quiet for long. Unlike other victims of Thai coups, he still enjoys the devotion of large swathes of society. “If there were an election tomorrow, he’d win,” says political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak. “Thaksin has exploited this raw nerve in Thai society [by talking] to the rural poor and saying ‘I’ll give you what you want.’ Unless this raw nerve is addressed … you can write the perfect constitution but someone like Thaksin will come along.”

In the past, deposed Thai strongmen have been allowed to return quietly from exile without threat of prosecution. But the current junta may not be so forgiving. As long as Thaksin maintains his rural popularity, they may be loath to offer him legal immunity. Last Friday, the CDR announced the formation of a nine-person panel charged with investigating alleged corruption within Thaksin’s administration. The country’s auditor-general, whom he had earlier tried to remove, also announced that she was expediting an inquiry into the tax-free sale of Shin Corp., the Thaksin family telecoms firm, last January. As the potential for legal action against Thailand’s last elected leader mounted, Sonthi promised again that his military council was committed to restoring democracy. Few in Thailand, so far, have voiced skepticism over Sonthi’s vow. On Friday, an anticoup rally near Bangkok’s glitziest mall drew just handfuls of supporters. Even as foreign leaders condemned the putsch, staunch defenders of civil liberties in Thailand found themselves hoping that a democracy could somehow be birthed under martial law. “I’m against the very principle of a coup,” says Adul Khiewboriboon, whose 20-year-old son was among those gunned down by the Thai military in 1992. “But I just don’t see any other way out of this mess.” Like many Thais, Adul can only hope that this coup ends as gently as it began.

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