International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: Echoes of Thailand's past
Sunday, July 15, 2007

HONG KONG: Is Thai politics on its way back to elections and normalcy following the August 2006 coup? Or is it headed for a repeat of the events of 1991-92 when popular protest and bloodshed proved to be the painful prelude to the military's return to the barracks?

At first glance, there is plenty of room for optimism about a stable transition to elected civilian government.

The new constitution drafted by the military appointed government is scheduled to be put to the electorate next month and if approved to be followed by elections by year-end. It has been accepted by the two largest remaining parties, the Chart Thai and the Democrat, now that the Thai Rak Thai party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been dissolved and he remains in exile.

The Democrat party is Thailand's oldest and is often seen as the most consistent advocate of democracy. It argues that though the proposed constitution is flawed, acceptance will enable a return to electoral politics and changes can be made later.

The main objections are that half of the senate will be appointed rather than elected and that various reserve powers will be given to judges and other unelected officials to act as curbs on the prime minister and the legislature.

The Bangkok elite mostly goes along with a positive view of the constitution and expects the referendum to endorse it. The renewed optimism about a return of stability and a better investment climate is reflected in the 18 percent gain in Thai stocks over the past month.

Although Thaksin's supporters are urging rejection, it is widely assumed that even if it is accepted, the Thai Rak Thai party - reformed under another name - will fight the ensuing elections and be a loud minority voice in the next legislature.

However, a look back at history introduces some doubts. After its 1991 coup to remove a supposedly corrupt elected government, the military changed the constitution to perpetuate its influence and held new elections that were won by a coalition headed by provincial politicians corralled into a new pro-military party.

A civilian was supposed to become prime minister but the individual named was barred from the U.S. due to alleged drug connections, so the coup architect, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, stepped in.

Widespread dissatisfaction with the military's effort to maintain power led to mass protests, bloodshed and an eventual royal intervention leading to new elections, which the Democrats won.

This time the military is more subtle. Nonetheless, there is a strong undercurrent of distaste, voiced by NGOs and academics as well as Thaksin loyalists, for accepting the legitimacy of a constitution devised by a military-appointed government.

Fears run deep that the powers reserved for the senate and judges are meant to limit democratic goals and prime ministerial power. The junta has added to these fears with a new internal security bill now before its appointed legislature that would give sweeping powers to the military's Internal Security Operations Command, bypassing the prime minister and cabinet.

There are other echoes of the past. The Chart Thai party could well emerge from elections as the largest party by benefiting from the defection of some opportunist TRT politicians. Its leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa, has suggested that he might stand aside and allow the coup leader, General Sonthi Boonyaratkin, who is due to retire from the army soon, to assume the leadership. The ever-flexible Banharn was a major player in the money politics that preceded the 1991 coup, yet Chart Thai was part of Suchinda's 1992 government and Banharn was briefly prime minister in the mid-1990s.

While there appears less opposition to the military's role this time, in 1992 there was no Thaksin to serve as a focus of opposition. Memories of Thaksin's abuse of power are already fading. Efforts to seize his assets and convict him of corruption will continue, but the reputation of the military itself, not to mention the old-timer politicians eager to get back to the trough, suggest that there is a choice between a clean if somewhat authoritarian military-supported government and Thaksin's corrupt but results-oriented populism.

Much elite antipathy to Thaksin is based not on corruption per se but on his centralization of power in his party and person, which showed how easy it was to buy off members of institutions created by the 1997 constitution to provide checks and balances.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a peaceful return to the unstable and corrupt - but open and freewheeling - multiparty politics of the pre-Thaksin era, and an eventual deal that will allow a chastened and less wealthy Thaksin to return to Thailand and to politics. But the military will need to back off further than its constitution and internal security bills so far suggest.