Sunday, September 24, 2006

The coup that was no secret

Thai Takes

The general’s son knew two days beforehand that there would be a coup d’etat against the Thai prime minister.

So when his friends invited him to accompany his father Prime Minister General Chatichai Choonhavan to Chiang Mai, Kraisak Choonhavan decided to stay at home in Bangkok.

On the morning of Feb 23, 1991, Kraisak told his friends Surakiart Sathirathai and Bovornsak Uwanno that they would not be safe.

“You will be near my father and they may arrest him today or tomorrow,” he recalled telling Surakiart, who is currently favourite in the race for the UN secretary-general’s post.

But his friends thought the military wouldn’t dare make such a move, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej had invited the prime minister for an audience in the northern city.

“I was not as confident as they were,” he recalled, laughing.

At about 10am, a phone call informed Kraisak that the prime minister and top officials including Surakiart and Bovornsak had been detained before their C-130 military plane had taken off at the Don Muang airport in Bangkok.

Though Chatichai had intelligence that a power grab was in play, the premier decided to allow it to happen.

“My father’s past experience taught him that when the entire army wanted to take over there was nothing much you could do,” he explained.

“That was what happened in 1947 when my grandfather launched a coup.”

Two months after Kraisak was born, his grandfather Lt-Gen Pin Choonhavan on Nov 8, 1947, led a coup that brought Field Marshal Phibulsongkhram to power. Pin was also involved in several coups in the 1940s and 1950s.

Kraisak had to live with his grandfather’s legacy. When he returned to Thailand after living abroad for 28 years, he “was not considered an acceptable person among the Thai intellectual circle”.

He found himself completely isolated because of his name – Choonhavan.

The coup of 1947 had a very negative impact among Thai intellectuals as his grandfather had overthrown one of Thailand’s most progressive prime ministers, Pridi Banomyong, who had paved the way for constitutional democracy in Thailand.

But Kraisak was determined to be part of the intelligentsia. A University of London master’s degree holder in political science, he found a lecturing job at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

After 10 years, he regained respect, becoming a “Marxist, neo-Marxist, humanist-Marxist, communist, intellectual, artist, even philanderer” as an Aug 19, 1988, newspaper article labelled him.

Two weeks before the article was published, Chatichai emerged as Thailand’s first elected MP to become prime minister. Three years later, on grounds of alleged corruption, the military ousted him.

During the coup, Kraisak did not fear for his father’s safety. He was confident the coup makers would not kill a prime minister who had been democratically elected.

“The coup makers were people Chatichai promoted and they knew each other personally. In fact, the circle of power in Thailand is very small,” he said.

Kraisak was right. The coup was as smooth as Thai silk without even a single bullet fired.

When he received news that the military had seized political power, he was “a bit relieved that it was all over”.

“I never really liked being the prime minister’s son. People who lobbied for positions or wanted projects gave you such importance. And I felt I did not deserve the privileges bombarded at me. I even felt embarrassed,” he explained.

The trappings of power went against Kraisak’s lifestyle. He preferred a more relaxed life with the Bangkok intellectual circle.

“I enjoy being critical of power rather than exercising or influencing it,” he said.

But he admitted that during his father’s reign, he enjoyed his role in installing peace in Cambodia.

Does the man, whose family history is pockmarked with coups, support the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra?

It was inevitable, said the outspoken 59-year-old Kraisak who was a senator before the fall of Thaksin’s government. “If the military did not act fast, Thaksin would have thrown a coup.

Thaksin would have declared Thailand under emergency law as he has done (previously) in five provinces in the south.”

He characterised the military takeover of the Thaksin government as “one step back, two steps forward”.

“This is the first coup where I don’t have to watch my back,” he added.

(Published in The Star on Sept 24, 2006 and AsiaNews. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)