One night in Bangkok
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2006
As in 1976 and again in 1991, the military has not specifically acted in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej but his consent is generally assumed. That will be interpreted by some as further evidence of his stabilizing influence, saving Thailand from the designs of corrupt politicians and ambitious military men. Others, however, will see it as evidence of the palace's distaste for democracy and its determination to preserve its own influence, rebuilt by the king after a period when it had been sidelined by both democrats and dictators.
The coup will be welcomed by many Thais, who put their well-earned dislike of Thaksin ahead of orderly constitutional change. In the short run, it will probably reduce the tensions that have been building for several months in Bangkok, most of whose voters oppose Thaksin. But the military cutting of a political knot will, as in 1976 and 1991, leave a scar.
Unlike those two previous coups against elected governments, this one has so far been achieved without bloodshed and is unlikely to lead to personal rule by the head of the armed forces, General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin. The military is not the force in modern Thailand that it was 20 years ago.
But the coup could well have an impact on the still undecided succession to King Bhumipol, who this year is celebrating the 60th anniversary of his accession. Thaksin had posed a challenge to what the palace sees as royal appointment prerogatives and was regarded as using the power of money to stir factionalism within the royal entourage.
There is no doubt that Thaksin abused his large parliamentary majority and his executive power to undermine a constitution with many checks and balances that had been created after the 1997 economic crisis. He neutered the anticorruption body and other constitutional groups that had been set up to institutionalize Thai democracy. Thaksin's high-handed behavior, the corruption of his government and an often crude populism directed at his rural constituency earned him the contempt not just of Bangkok but, more important, of the metropolitan business and bureaucratic elite. So it is not surprising to find that many who fought for democracy back in 1991 and 1992 are now actively or passively supporting the coup.
These opponents had already sought to oust Thaksin through street demonstrations when he tried to reassert himself through the ballot box in April. The coup Tuesday night followed a constitutional court decision to postpone the electoral rerun that had been set for October.
All this threatened to drag out the political impasse that has paralyzed government and damaged the economy. Well before the coup, however, Thaksin was on the defensive. Court decisions were mostly going against him and though he was reckoned still able to win an election, his command over his party and the bureaucracy had been drastically weakened.
Constitutional checks and balances might have been allowed to reassert themselves. But instead the coup has taken a short cut. What will be its long-term consequences? Once the revered King Bhumibol is no longer around, it may come to be seen as a prelude to the determination of future political leaders, elected or not, to neuter the palace.
The coup may also emphasize the economic and political gap between the metropolis and the provinces, where Thaksin's populist spending found resonance among a public long ignored by the urban elites. It might help improve the situation in the rebellious Malay/Muslim south, where killings are a daily occurrence. Thaksin's policies have exacerbated this problem, but unless a military-led regime is prepared to seek nonmilitary solutions, little will change.
The coup is a reminder that Thai democracy is no more mature than that of the Philippines, which is still struggling with the consequences of the overthrow in 2001 of the elected president, Joseph Estrada. That Thaksin abused the rules of the game is no good reason for opponents to do likewise.
The loser here is not Thaksin but the institutional development that should channel the opposing forces of liberal democracy, populist authoritarianism and monarchical conservatism into a stable system accepted by all players.