Sunday, September 24, 2006

Chance for a new beginning

Thai Takes

The Thai prime minister stepped into a C-130 military plane. The aircraft began taxiing but it suddenly halted.

Inside the plane, men in safari suits swung into action, whipping out their pistols and holding the premier's security guards at gunpoint.

There was no resistance and the prime minister sat still.

“I did not expect this to happen to our country again,” the prime minister's adviser said when it became clear the military had seized power.

The year was 1991 and the prime minister was Gen Chatichai Choonhavan.

Fast forward 15 years and Thais are again amidst a rattabarahan (Thai for government killed). It is Thailand's 18th coup d'etat since 1932, the year Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

Like the Chatichai putsch and most coups in Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra's ouster was bloodless – Thai-style.

“It is a happy coup,” said a 50-something Thai feminist joyously as smiling soldiers armed with assault rifles stood close by.

The tanks rolled into the capital and overthrew a democratically-elected government and most Thais were happy. Some Bangkokians took photographs with the soldiers while others handed yellow roses to them.

It was as if a rattabarahan was a way of life in Thailand.

No, said Surin Pitsuwan, Democrat party deputy leader and former foreign minister. “It is not a desirable thing,” he said.

The majority of the people, Surin said, did not accept it as a normal political action “but only in an extreme case like this.”

“I'm not rationalising or defending the coup, but I can well understand the reason it happened,” he said.

The Thaksin government, reasoned Surin, had corrupted and manipulated the checks and balances mechanism, parliament and the constitution, leaving the military with no choice but to overthrow it.

“I approve this coup completely ? for the moment,” said Asda Jayanama, who was the permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations from 1996 to 2001.

Echoing Surin's view, he said Thaksin, during his five years in power, had corrupted democracy in Thailand.

“In substance Thaksin was a dictator who hid behind a façade of democracy,” he added.

Asked how the world perceived the coup, Asda said: “The outside world's view is simplistic. Because they identify democracy as anyone who comes to power through elections.

“But they never thought that an election can be impure. They never thought that democracy can be bought by politicians,” he added.

Among the minority who oppose the coup was a 25-year old political science graduate who requested anonymity.

“There is a major distinction between democratic progress and ousting Thaksin by coup d'etat. Apparently, many people equate the two and I don't,” she said.

She was not sure how the coup could give a genuine long-term solution to address the fundamental political problems of her country.

“Many don't see (or chose not to see) the power distribution among the vested interest groups, particularly among the Thai elite and the middle class,” she argued.

“Well-educated Bangkokians would rather ignore the lower class because they think poor people are dumb.”

However, Asda was optimistic about the coup.

“Some say that this coup has destroyed democracy in Thailand. But what it has done is destroy the democracy that Thaksin had championed,” he explained.

“The democracy we are trying to advocate – and we hope this government will follow it – is where there's good governance and more people participation,” he explained.

The coup, Surin said, was an opportunity for a new beginning. “I hope the new constitution will solve the loopholes and weaknesses of the old constitution,” he said.

On why Thailand had a history of coups, the former foreign minister said this was because previously there was a conflict of interest among factions in the military.

“But that's in the past. In this coup the military took action to save democracy,” he said.

Thailand, Asda added, had had several coups because since 1932 the military had played a leading role in the country's power structure.

Would there be further military takeover in the Land of Coups?

Asda hoped not. “If the present coup leaders do their job well such as ensuring independent bodies – election committee, anti-corruption committee and human rights committee – cannot be bought,” he said.

“With more maturity in Thailand's democracy, it (a coup) will be difficult.”

Hopefully, if not history could repeat itself.

(Published in The Star on Sept 24, 2006)