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Thai Coup: Old Elites Against New


“Notorious Bangkok traffic jams indicate that the country is returning to normalcy”, reported western mass-media outlets including BBC World Service just two days after the military coup overthrew democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire prime minister.

Hopeless traffic jams are definitely a common sight in Bangkok. So are the military coups. 78 years old Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej lived through 18 of them while somehow managing to retain aura of moral superiority. King – the world’s longest serving monarch, revered by most Thais as semi-god – placed his support behind the recent military coup leaders who ousted elected government and threw out constitution on September 19.

Only two hours before Mr. Thaksin was scheduled to address General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, Thai military occupied strategic positions in the center of Bangkok, forced television and radio stations off the air, then ordered broadcasting of patriotic songs and images of the king. Yellow – color of monarchy – was decorating their uniforms.

In a royal order the king endorsed the leader of military junta – General Sondhi Boonyarataklin – as the head of a new interim government. As any criticism of the king is illegal, no protests were registered in Bangkok or in the countryside – main base of support for Mr. Thaksin. Thai prime minister has been irritating urban middle class and elites for quite some time. Arguably the richest man in Thailand – maverick billionaire – he was unlikely ally of the country’s enormous underclass. But he addressed many grievances of the poor, introduced social programs and supported small enterprises and businesses in some of the most desperate parts of Thailand. In return he became greatly popular among the poor in the countryside, his party winning three elections since 2001.

His social and economic policy was based on pragmatism, not on philanthropy or belief in social justice. Pro-business to the extreme he sought to bring large underclass to the mainstream in order to boost consumer spending and make Thailand more competitive abroad. But even that proved to be too much for the urban elites which, as in most parts of Southeast Asia, savor great social gap between themselves and the poor, resisting any attempt to introduce more egalitarian forms of society.

Christian Science Monitor pointed out that: “A bloodless coup has upended the country’s fragile democracy to the delight of many middle-class activists who had campaigned for months for the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra? But the manner of his removal by Army officers loyal to the Thai monarch exposed the shallow roots of the democratic institutions that grew in the shadow of past military regimes? The readiness of self-styled democrats to condone the military action reflects the conservative grounding of Thailand’s urban political culture, which is shaped more by royalist hierarchy then well defined checks and balances on strong executive.”

Mr. Thaksin could hardly be seen as a champion of human rights and democratic rule. This magazine (http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-05/10vltchek.cfm) accused him of brutal response to a Muslim insurgency in three southern provinces. His anti-drugs campaign led to a massacre of more than 2.000 men and women, actions described by several human rights groups as “extra-judiciary executions”.

He deported thousands of desperate Burmese immigrants, many of them HIV-positive, back to their native country where they had to face certain and horrifying dead(http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2002-09/05vltchek.cfm). And when it suited him, he treated the poor literally like rubbish, detaining and expelling all beggars and homeless people from Bangkok on the eve of APEC Summit in October, 2003 (http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2003 10/22vltchek.cfm).

His government had been accused of corruption, cronyism and nepotism, the most striking examples being scandals related to new Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport and a telecommunication company founded by Mr. Taksin which was sold for 1.9 billion dollars by his family which allegedly avoided paying taxes. But high level of corruption is a norm in all Southeast Asian countries and there is hardly any government in this region which could not be accused of harboring it, including those before Mr. Taksin’s reign.

It is unpronounced but obvious reality that Thai prime minister had been ousted because of his clash with traditional and feudal elites: royal, economic and political. He was a modern, aggressive businessman; ruthless tycoon, a man who didn’t hesitate to put his strife for economic success above traditional and hopelessly vertical culture of power.

Despite all that was wrong with Mr. Taksin’s government, he should have been allowed to stay and face the opposition in November elections. [The] September 19 military coup is tremendous set back for Thailand and entire region. Widely publicized promises of junta to hand back power to civilian institutions within two weeks are nothing worth celebrating. It only demonstrates that the army and the monarch see it as natural to intervene against any elected government they may disapprove of, and then allow for the leftovers of official political parties and personalities to compete in “benevolently” tolerated elections.

It is widely publicized that one year after the previous military coup in 1991, king Bhumibol intervened against the army which unleashed campaign of terror against protestors in Bangkok. Junta leaders were told to back up. They ended up prostrated on the floor; face down, at king’s feet, resigning soon after. But democracy can’t rely on benevolence or personal preferences of the monarch.

The same king reined over the country which was burning alive its left-wing opposition in oil barrels; he reigned over the country which was fully participating in covert and extremely brutal wars against its neighbors Laos and Cambodia, as well as Vietnam. And he is still a monarch of the nation where minorities – not being Thai by blood – have virtually no rights and no citizenship. As mentioned earlier, he is a veteran of 18 coups which he either opposed or supported, but definitely survived.

Thais should demand that political standing and powers of the king will be clarified. He should be either holding well defined powers and responsibilities, or no powers to intervene in politics at all. Modern and democratic nation can’t entrust its fate in arbitrary interventions of unelected person, no matter how revered.

Reactions to the coup in Thailand in western media had been unsurprisingly tailored and polite. Thailand had been staunch ally of the United States and the west for many decades, voluntarily liquidating its left-leaning opposition and getting involved in above mentioned military interventions. Needless to say that Thailand, like several other client states, can get away with almost any outrageously undemocratic acts while still being described as essentially democratic and stabile.

Military junta banned meetings by political parties and creation of new parties. Several members of Mr. Taksin’s government were arrested and disappeared. Buildings of mass media were occupied. And the monarch who should be only symbolic figure with no political power is sending confusing and wrong signals.

Real losers in these events will be, as always, poor Thais; still the majority in this nation. As almost everywhere else in Southeast Asia, in Thailand there are hardly any strong political movements ready to represent interests of the majority. Mr. Taksin did not offer any great solutions, but he at least addressed several problems, showing interest in the plight of have-nots. No matter how pragmatic and selfish his interests were, he offered more than what the majority of Thais ever got from their rulers. He was brutal, ruthless and probably a corrupt prime minister. But at least he gained power through the ballot box, not through the military boots.

“Shopping mall’s opposition” and elites in Bangkok now feel encouraged. Western press is reporting “almost festive atmosphere” on the streets of the capital. No wonder: rich urbanites and new middle-class will be able to keep their underpaid maids and laborers from impoverished provinces. Their sense of uniqueness and elitism will remain intact. And it all has a royal seal of approval and since it is illegal to criticize the monarchy, there is no need to indulge in soul-searching and doubts.

Done! Democracy had been raped once again. Long live the king!

Andre Vltchek: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), progressive publishing house for political fiction. His recent books include novel “Point of no Return” and book of essays “Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad”. Producer and writer of documentary film “Terlena: Breaking of a Nation” about brutality of Suharto’s dictatorship (www.millache.org). He works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at [email protected]

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