Coup in Bangkok

Print edition : October 06, 2006

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is ousted in absentia in a bloodless coup.


Near the Government house in Bangkok, on September 20, signs of a military takeover.-PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP

AS tanks and armoured vehicles rolled onto the streets of Bangkok on the night of September 19, disbelief about a conventional military coup was tempered by suspicions that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra might actually be "staging a putsch" in his own favour. This strange distrust of Thaksin's ways reflected the extent of political polarisation that he had caused during his tenure at the helm in Thailand for nearly five and a half years, especially since January 2006.

As events unfolded in Bangkok with military "precision" and without any resistance from Thaksin's "loyalists" in the armed forces, it became clear to his critics that there were indeed limits to his political shenanigans. But, before he watched his own downfall on television in New York, where he was camping on that fateful day to address the United Nations General Assembly, Thaksin did play a few political cards - to no avail, though.

Thaksin, for long an embattled "hero" despite his undoubted support among the rural masses in Thai politics, ordered from New York the "dismissal" of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who was reckoned to be leading the coup in Bangkok. As the Thailand Army's commander - in-chief, Gen. Sonthi had, for weeks prior to this denouement, assured the people through media statements that he was not plotting a takeover and that coups were indeed things of the past in the South-East Asian nation, which had indeed witnessed a number of military interventions until 1991.

Thaksin then sought permission from the U.N. to advance his scheduled address to the General Assembly so that he could fly back home quickly in order to set the house in order. His request was granted, but before he could publicly urge the international community to strengthen his hands to keep Thailand a democracy, Gen. Sonthi proved decisively that he was the one calling the political shots. It turned out to be a bloodless coup against a man who was elected by the people more than once.

And, as the appointed hour for Thaksin's rescheduled address at the U.N. passed, with no attempt by him to insist on speaking as a falling leader, it was already well past dawn in Bangkok on September 20. Satisfied that Thaksin no longer had access to an international political platform, the coup leaders in Bangkok wasted no time to introduce themselves to the Thai people as their new rulers.

Electronic messaging may have a definitive technical meaning, but the electronic media form the prime tool of present-day politics. And, in "globalising" Thailand, Gen. Sonthi predictably opted for this medium to announce Thaksin's overthrow. And, as he made his presence felt in a virtual-reality setting, it was surprising in a sense that he had already allowed eight or 10 hours to elapse since the time the tanks rolled onto Bangkok streets.

During that period, while he did not make a televised appearance, he did impose martial law through a statement issued over the television channels that his troops had taken control of. These included channels owned by the government, those controlled by the military, and those run independently.

With Thaksin recognising that his writ no longer ran in Thailand, Gen. Sonthi knew that he could now seize the moment. Flanked by other top military commanders, he delivered a televised address, choosing carefully the portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen for the backdrop. The constitutional monarch is universally revered in Thailand as the ultimate protector of the country's interests and well-being.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Prime Minister.-APICHART WEERAWONG/AP

Prior to exposing the Thai people to that early-morning reality check, Gen. Sonthi had pledged loyalty to the King while moving against Thaksin. The formation of a provisional council was announced, at that time itself, to run the country, with the monarch as the titular head.

From then on, it was a march of events by Gen. Sonthi's calendar and his calendar alone. During the day on September 20, he divided his time between the tasks needed to consolidate his hold on all levers of power and the inevitable requirements of a political hard-sell to convince the inquisitive international community about the "legitimacy" of his power grab.

So, briefing the foreign envoys in Bangkok, Gen. Sonthi said he would appoint a civilian Prime Minister and government in about two weeks from the defining moment of the coup. He said he would also hold elections as soon as possible to restore democracy - and that was only after he had the time to modify the 1997 Constitution, which brought Thaksin to power.

While he did not take the envoys into confidence about any firm timeline for the promised elections, he later said, at a press conference, that the poll could be expected by October 2007 at the latest. Prior to that, an interim Constitution would be drafted, at first, for the "lawful" functioning of the junta now in power.

This would be followed by the enactment of modifications to the 1997 Constitution, the country's 16th since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932. With that, the stage would be set for democracy-reviving general elections.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader.-SUKREE SUKPLANG/REUTERS

In all, Gen. Sonthi portrayed himself as a democracy-friendly soldier who staged the coup only to rid the country of the political uncertainties that had come to paralyse it since the beginning of this year. In his public relations exercise of this magnitude, he was vastly encouraged by the "good news" that the people, at least in politically sensitive Bangkok, were not opposing the takeover. Indeed, even as the soldiers patrolled the streets sporting yellow-coloured ribbons that symbolised loyalty to the King, a number of residents greeted them by offering bouquets and posing for photographs with them. Even some tourists joined the local people in this.

Meanwhile, Thaksin, a billionaire-business-magnate-turned-politician, resigned himself to his sudden fate as "an unemployed man". He travelled from New York to London on a "private" visit and issued a statement that he would take "rest" and stay with a member of his family. The junta did not immediately ask for his extradition from Britain, although a new probe against him, for alleged corruption and electoral fraud, was ordered in Thailand itself.

In all, however, the junta felt vastly encouraged by the total absence of any resistance to the coup at home and also by the hesitation of the international community, including Thailand's neighbours and the United States, to threaten political and economic sanctions.

Quite apart from the principle of Thailand's sovereignty over its internal political system, a certain degree of intervention-fatigue was noticeable on the international stage in the context of Washington's "imperial over-reach" at this time.

For the junta, the domestic constituency was of greater importance in the short run than the international scene, and Gen. Sonthi moved in quickly to reassure the Thai people that he enjoyed the blessings of the monarch. Authoritative Thai sources told this correspondent that the political happenings under Thaksin's rule and the September 19 coup were at that time a "very divisive" issue. But they wanted to wait and see how the junta would move forward.

Not surprisingly in that context, and shortly after the foreign envoys were briefed on September 20, the junta put out a statement affirming that there was no power vacuum following the coup. The junta said the King had, at a time unspecified by the new military rulers, "appointed" Gen. Sonthi the country's administrator. The junta, which did not spell out the King's decree verbatim at that time, exhorted the people to remain "calm" and urged officials to "follow" the orders of the new rulers.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The coup has the monarch's support.-SAEED KHAN/AFP

On September 22, the junta organised a formal ceremony, at which Gen. Sonthi assumed office as the head of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM). The King, by convention or otherwise, did not preside over this ceremony. A military official read out the monarch's decree and Gen. Sonthi followed the substantive ritual of bowing before a portrait of the King. By then, the junta had no difficulty in establishing its de facto status as the new powers that be, and the royal decree was projected as Gen. Sonthi's empowerment as de jure ruler.

Gen. Sonthi, who belongs to the Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Thailand, could not have asked for more in the immediate context of his action that clearly set the clock back on Thailand's democratic evolution. Some Muslim "insurgents" in three southern provinces have been waging a violent campaign for "independence" or at least "autonomy".

For long a sporadic movement, the "insurgency" gained momentum since early 2004, and Thaksin had used these very same armed forces, which have now turned against him, to try and quell the "Muslim rebellion" by "robust" means - a euphemism for strong-arm tactics.

Some Thais, who have now acquiesced in Gen. Sonthi's power-grab, expect him to bring his fellow-Muslims back into Thailand's mainstream. In a sense, a credible political settlement of the problem of "Muslim insurgency" may be seen as a key element of the litmus test that he should, in course of time, pass to remain acceptable to the country as a whole.

To begin with, Gen. Sonthi may shed light on the internal dynamics of the decision-making process under Thaksin that led to the crackdown on not only the "Muslim insurgents" but also alleged drug-traffickers and other practitioners of transnational crimes.

One of the major criticisms against Thaksin was that he had sanctioned, either willingly or as a matter of political insensitiveness, a campaign of military and police action, which resulted in "gross violations of the human rights" of the suspected separatists, terrorists, and common criminals.

At a rally in central Bangkok on September 22, a slogan against both the coup and the deposed Prime Minister.-DARREN WHITESIDE/REUTERS

And, if Gen. Sonthi does choose to take the Thai people into confidence about his past role, if any, and future plans to deal with the suspected separatists, terrorists, drug traffickers and common criminals, he will then be subjecting himself to a test that very few military rulers have ever done anywhere in the world.

On balance, therefore, a longer-term question will come into focus if Gen. Sonthi does stay in power beyond the timelines he indicated on September 20 - two weeks or October 2007, depending on his perception of a civilian government under military tutelage.

This question will relate to the reason why Gen. Sonthi imposed martial law at a time when general elections were actually round the corner. The polls were set for October 15, under the King's decree, which followed his counsel to the political leaders to "put the country back on course".

The King's counsel of that kind and the related poll-setting decree were two significant aspects of his desire to see Thailand emerge unscathed from the crisis that was triggered by the protest rallies against Thaksin. Thaksin, who was re-elected Prime Minister in 2005 by a record margin, had started consolidating his power base. In the process, he left his political flanks open to attack from opponents, who began pointing to his "authoritarian" style and "disdain" for rules, and finally his "brazen manipulation" of the fiscal laws in order to amass nearly $2 billion as tax-free gains on the external sale of shares in his family-owned telecom company.

After a bomb explosion near a shopping centre in the southern Thai city of Hat Yai on September 16. A credible political settlement of the problem of "Muslim insurgency" is seen as a key element of the litmus test that Gen. Sonthi should pass to remain acceptable to the country as a whole.-AFP

While Thaksin remained immensely popular among the rural people, who hailed his social welfare schemes for them, including health care facilities, the intelligentsia turned against him. And he ordered snap polls to gain a fresh mandate. The polls, held on April 2, were later annulled by the courts on grounds of electoral fraud. It was in that context that yet another round of general elections was set for October 15. This too looked like getting postponed, because of some technical procedures, when Gen. Sonthi struck on the basis of a "consensus" among his fellow generals.

As Chris Baker, an expert on Thai politics noted during the run-up to the latest denouement, Thaksin was seeking to carve out a "presidential" role for himself in a parliamentary system under a much-venerated monarch. Other experts such as Duncan McCargo saw the "Thaksinisation" of politics as the key challenge in Thailand during the phase that led to the coup.

Without anticipating the coup, some Thai experts, such as Thitinan Pongsudhirak had suggested some time ago that Thaksin's opponents "should not lose sight of Thailand's fledgling democratic rule and Thaksin's enduring legacy of focussing on the downtrodden countryside". This message applies more categorically to the new Bangkok junta.

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