Victory of the coup-makers

Two years to the month since the army in Thailand launched its latest takeover of government, the proof of its success is in the mayhem and madness on the streets of Bangkok and the utter farce to which politics there has again descended.

On the one side is a prime minister who is as much an accident of history as a denier of it, a dinosaur politician who should by now have been extinct from public life, let alone leading it; a man who at times can hardly form a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent government.

He and the gaggle of Thaksinites that gathered around him in a rebranded party for last year’s ballot were at the time cast as saviors of the masses, come to take democracy back from the generals. They may have won the vote, but the army, which quietly shelved plans for its own candidates, had in the meantime moved the playing field.

On the other side is an alliance of people united in their hatred of the ousted prime minister, and increasingly, of anybody else connected to him; an alliance motivated to oppose the elected government’s plans to amend a Constitution that a military junta forced down the country’s throat.

It is also an alliance whose foremost demand on behalf of democracy is that it wants less of it, and that too at a time that the country already has less of it than it did before the army had its way in September 2006. Half of the 150 seats in the Senate are now appointees, and how many people know who they are or how they got there, let alone what they do?

That the whole parliamentary process is at its lowest ebb since the early 1990s is exactly what the generals and their backers intended. Although the coup was aimed at removing that manager and manipulator of party politics, Thaksin Shinawatra, and dismantling his network, he was just the embodiment of the main target: the party political system itself.

Why are the armed forces of Thailand, or rather, their leaders, so hostile to a working party-based system of elected government?

In part because Thailand had the fortune never to be colonized, it did not become a home to political movements of the sort that grew from the historic nationalist struggles in some of its neighbors. There was never a Congress Party or Freedom League to emerge along with new ideas about political process and participatory government.

Instead, successive military regimes forged their own brand of mass politics and took it upon themselves to organize and direct people toward the sort of tasks that might otherwise have been undertaken by political parties, shaping an image of modernity in their own likenesses.

After all that, the May 1992 fiasco was a big fall from grace for the army. It had failed to keep up with changing public sentiment. Its image of modernity was no longer that of millions of its compatriots. It had lost the plot.

In 1997 the new Constitution greatly enhanced the authority of civilian and independent bodies as against those of the old powerbrokers, and strengthened the hand of parliamentary government considerably.

Thaksin recognized the opportunities and took every one that he could get, at the expense of many lives and liberties. But he also did something that had not been done before, successfully building a party with widespread appeal that campaigned both on policy and on personality.

Contrast that with the old-style alliance that Samak Sundaravej cobbled together last year. When asked about policies, he said that they’d take care of them later. What policies his Thai Rak Thai-lookalike party had campaigned upon were in fact recycled from the former government. After that, it was just one cock-up after another.

Back in 2006 amid the blind euphoria at Thaksin’s demise, a few sane voices warned that the military coup would, first, wind the country’s political clock back to the 1980s, and second, not end turmoil and violence but only exacerbate both for years to come.

Unfortunately, both of those warnings have proven correct. Today Thailand is slipping toward the “half-sail” democracy of earlier decades. A triumvirate of soldiers and a policeman is running Bangkok. Whatever happens, the street battles and confused yelling from camp to camp are not going to end any time soon. Why should they? After all, they are the fruits of the coup-makers’ victory.

Source: Victory of Thailand’s coup makers

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5 responses to “Victory of the coup-makers

  1. A solution where PPP are seen to be doing the right thing for the people, not giving in to mob rule, and the country will be better off for it:

    1. Samak/PPP acknowledge that the constitutional amendment will be put to a new round of consultation to create a new ‘peoples’ constitution.

    2. PAD then can either go home (hopefully), or if they choose to stubbornly stay, they can be forced home.

    That way there are no clear ‘winner take all’ victors, and ultimately the Thai people will be the winners.

    Having learned from the past, all sides can put up their views on the constitution problem areas, argue robustly, try to reach consensus, and if that is not achievable, the remaining contentious issues can be decided by the people.

    Is anyone interested in a solution, or is it only victory that matters?

  2. we have to accept the truth, and the truth is PPP is elected by most people of the Kingdom.

    PPP should:

    1, Agree with Hobby. A constitutional amendment is a must, and must be now.

    2, PAD will not back home by their own, so force them home, put the leaders to jail. But the biggest problem here is: Thai people is too kind to use the force. They see a government to use force to PAD as an evil. how come?

    3, Dissolve the congress before the court dissolve the PPP “AGAIN”!

    Do the right thing, even though there will be pain.
    Do the right thing in name of the poor.

  3. Dear fellow blogger,

    I am Mong Palatino from the Global Voices network (http://globalvoicesonline.org/about). We are interested to know more about the political crisis in Bangkok. We are proposing a virtual meeting of bloggers in the East Asia region to discuss this issue. Can you serve as a resource person in this meeting by providing key insights, latest updates about the situation? We propose to hold the chat discussion this coming September 12, Friday, 10pm-12mn (Hong Kong and Philippine time).

    This will be our second time to conduct a virtual discussion. The first event was held last month (http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/08/24/taiwan-hopes-in-democracy-in-the-midst-of-corruption-scandal/) when we tackled the corruption scandal in Taiwan.

    Can you also help us invite other Thailand-based bloggers to join the discussion?

    We look forward to your participation in this activity.

    To join the chatroom:

    by the way, irc = 1. get chatzilla in your firefox, 2. join the freenode network 3. join the globalvoices channel.

    or http://www.mibbit.com/. then by finding ‘freenode.net’ in the pulldown menu and typing ‘#globalvoices’ in the “channel” field.

    Thanks a lot. Mabuhay!

    mong

    PS: I also write for UPI-Asia

  4. Mong, thanks, I can’t participate at that time but maybe others will be interested to join.

  5. The Thai military is back in charge

    Chang Noi, 2 feb 2009

    The big winner from the political chaos of the last three years has been the Thai military. Possibly, the generals are now more powerful than at any time over the past twenty years. Under coup rule, they might seem more powerful but in truth are a little limited by being fully exposed. In present circumstances, they have a discrete cover. It is hard to recall the last change of government when the army chief played such a prominent role. The publicity-shy General Anupong has a bigger profile in day-to-day news than his publicity-hogging predecessor General Sonthi a year ago.

    The most spectacular evidence of the military’s success is in the national budget. Over three budget cycles, the allocation for defence has almost doubled from 85 billion baht in 2006 to 167 billion baht in 2009. The allocation for internal security has also soared from 77 billion to 114 billion over the same period. No other segment of the budget has grown in the same way, and indeed most have been shaved down to accommodate this growth in security spending.

    The scale of this budget boost has to be measured against what preceded it. The defence share of the budget had slumped steadily from 19 percent in 1991 down to 6.3 percent in 2006. It was no coincidence that this decline in the defence share coincided with the long period of parliamentary rule, and that the upturn (now back to 9.1 percent) has come after a coup. Buying weapons is back on the agenda. The navy wants to add submarines to park beside its aircraft carrier.

    But the budget is only one sign of the military’s recent success. The military also has three trophies from the frenzy of legislation in the dying days of the coup-appointed parliament.

    The most important is the Internal Security Act. This legislation reconfirms the military’s role in internal security which seemed in peril after the Democrats remaindered the anti-communist law in the late 1990s. In the first, extremely ambitious draft of the law, the army head was to become head of the revived ISOC, and beholden to virtually nobody. The parliament amended this to make the prime minister the titular head of ISOC, but in effect the operational power remains with the army chief. The boundaries of internal security are not defined in the law and hence are open to wide interpretation. The act is the charter for the army to reclaim the guardianship role in Thai politics that it developed in the Cold War era and lost over the past two decades. This guardianship is not just about putting governments in power but extends down the administrative pyramid. The army policy document leaked a year ago stated that “kamnan, village heads, and local government bodies must be in our hands,” and army personnel should take over duties such as suppressing drugs, controlling illegal migration, combating drought and flood, and alleviating poverty. The ISOC chief in each province is to spearhead this policy, mobilizing help from reservists and former cadet school students.

    The Broadcasting Act is another triumph. Ever since 1992, there has been public pressure for reform and liberalization of the media. The 1997 Constitution mandated a new regulatory structure under which broadcasting frequencies would be treated as public goods. This structure was never implemented because of sabotage by old vested interests. The new Broadcasting Act is a brilliant preemptive move that puts all the intentions of the 1997 Constitution firmly in the past. The Act creates a new regulatory structure but offers absolutely no threat to the old system of broadcasting concessions. Thailand is probably the only purported democracy where the military owns two free-to-air television channels, one directly managed, and many radio stations. These broadcast outlets are channels for propaganda and sources of non-transparent flows of income.

    The Defence Ministry Act is a direct response to Thaksin’s interventions in the military promotion lists. In the past the promotion lists were prepared by the service chiefs then passed to the defence minister and prime minister before submission for the royal signature. Generally any disagreements had to be resolved among the parties before the final submission. In 2005, Thaksin seems to have altered the final list, provoking a crisis. The new bill changes the system. The list is vetted by a committee made up of the three service chiefs, permanent secretary for defence, prime minister, and defence minister. Any dispute is to be decided by a vote. The service chiefs have a built-in majority. As long as they are united, the prime minister is out of it.

    In July 2006, General Prem famously said, “soldiers belong to His Majesty the King, not to a government. A government is like a jockey. It supervises soldiers, but the real owners are the country, and the King.” During the long standoff between the PAD and the Samak-Somchai governments, General Anupong repeatedly insisted on remaining “independent” and being “on the side of the people,” which essentially meant refusing to act as the security arm of the elected government. When a State of Emergency was declared, he mobilized troops but kept them inside the barracks. When the airports were seized, he stood aside. At one point Anupong stated, “I am not a soldier of the government. The army belongs to the Thai public. I can’t channel it to serve as anybody’s private army.”

    Under the constitution, the monarch is the head of the armed forces. The working relationship between the executive and military has always been a matter of delicate negotiation. After 1992, the pendulum seemed to be swinging away from the generals. Parliament demanded more transparency in the budget. Chuan and Samak disrupted the “convention” that the defence minister should be a military man. Thaksin exerted influence on promotions. Now the pendulum has swung firmly back. The military is more a power unto itself. The prime minister seems to be a spokesman defending the military against accusations of abuse.

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