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Onus now on those who supported Thai coup

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Minh Nguyen |  16 October 2006

A former army commander who once declared "the army should never be involved in politics", Surayud Chulanont, was appointed Thailand's interim prime minister at the weekend. But the irony of this appointment matters little in a coup marked by paradoxes.

From day one, the coup against a democratically-elected government and the subsequent crackdown on the media and political activities were branded by the generals as an attempt to salvage Thai democracy.

Coup leader General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin had accused the telecommunication tycoon and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption, nepotism and "undermining the democratic norms".

Admittedly, the complaints against Thaksin are not far off the mark. Thaksin's wealth and power, which once satisfied Thailand's need for political stability, also enabled him to undermine institutions designed to preserve political checks and balances.

This style of bullyboy governance would explain another paradox of the recent events in Thailand: the casual reaction from the locals towards the coup. Perhaps they saw no difference between a slow or speedy death for Thai democracy.

The memorable images of people offering flowers to troops suggest that many Thais are relieved, if not glad, to see the self-made billionaire go, even if the means were less than ideal. However, minor incidences of vandalism are a reminder that there are also losers under the new regime.

The issue would not have been so complicated but for Thaksin's popular support among the nation's poor. He was seen as a political innovator who introduced policies and programs which fostered entrepreneurship and helped the poor. His government gave the rural poor government-subsidised health care and introduced a debt moratorium.

Onus now on those who supported Thai coupThey paid the incumbent government in kind by giving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party an overwhelming victory at last year's general election and again in April this year.

However, several months have passed since the last election and, in rural Thailand, the impact of the king's tacit endorsement of the coup remains unclear. The few political protests against the coup indicate that there may have been a mood swing outside the nation's capital.

This notion is supported by results of a survey of 2000 people, conducted by the Bangkok Post on the first day of Thailand's new military rule, which found nearly 84 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of the regime change.

This highlights a final paradox of what Colum Murphy of the Far Eastern Economic Review calls "Thai-style democracy", which fuses the popular will with the unquestioned authority of the king. This is the only system that will work for Thailand, the king's right-hand man, General Prem Tinsulanonda, was quoted as saying on the day of the coup.

The idea that the Thais love their democracy as much as their king is hinted at in an upcoming report on Asia Pacific non-governmental organisations' (NGOs) perceptions of Australia, conducted by Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

In the survey, Thai NGOs were asked how they rate the importance of a series of foreign policy goals. Promoting democracy in the region was rated fourth among eleven policy goals, with eight out of ten NGOs claiming that it is very or fairly important.

The survey found that for at least one group of Thais, a group most likely to have supported the coup, democratic values themselves are not questioned.

While democratic institutions in Thailand may have taken a step backward this month, it would be a mistake to think that the Thais' casual approach to the eighteenth coup in 74 years reveals a national disposition towards authoritarianism, as some cynics have suggested.

The fact that so many Thais were conscious and concerned about Thaksin's electoral rigging and cronyism, is hardly a sign of democratic complacency.

Onus now on those who supported Thai coupTo make a comparison, perhaps Australian politics would be in a different place today if the public showed the same level of consciousness and concern over issues of democracy and public accountability as they do over interest rates and petrol prices.

With the announcement of an interim prime minister, the onus is now on those who applauded the coup to ensure that the democratic institutions they had previously enjoyed are not just returned, but strengthened.

The responsibility for Australia is not to quietly continue its support of the military as it appears to be doing, but to loudly rally behind those groups pushing for genuine reform.

It is hopeful to know that there are already signs of democratic agitation, despite a ban on political activities. NGOs and civic groups from across the nation are planning a massive "Thai Social Forum" gathering to discuss political and constitutional reforms.

Ahead of this meeting, the organisers have released a petition which called on the junta to lift martial law, revoke its ban on political gatherings and end media interference. This is a positive sign and a reminder to the West not to brush off democracy—Thai-style—just yet.


Minh Nguyen

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Submitted comments

I have found recent events in Thailand mystifying, and further, am amazed with the phlegmatic approach of Thais to the overturning of their government. I wonder if Thaksin had managed to buy liverpool if we would have been so loathed.

Andy Johnson 03 October 2006

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