Juntas' dilemmas

Print edition : April 20, 2007

The junta leaders of Thailand, Myanmar and Fiji seek comparable strategies to pursue their "road maps for democracy".

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

Frank Bainimarama of Fiji.-UDO WEITZ/BLOOMBERG NEWS

THE rumblings of democracy in Thailand are beginning to rattle the military junta in the "globalised country". Thailand, "a major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ally" of the United States, lies at one of the strategic intersections in Greater East Asia, a critical region for the future of global politics.

Two other countries in Greater East Asia, Myanmar and Fiji, are also run by military coup masters. These two are not comparable polities, but their junta leaders seek comparable survival strategies - entrenchment in power in order to pursue "road maps for democracy" in the fullness of time. In contrast, at the beginning of April, the Thai coup masters found themselves hustled by the protagonists of democracy at home. The Thai junta's democracy dilemmas can be traced to the country's rapid globalisation - being a player with no national consensus to keep external influences at bay.

Myanmar, for long a bastion of military rulers, recently escaped censure by the United Nations Security Council. China and Russia, two permanent members of the Council, vetoed a draft resolution sponsored by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, two others with similar powers. Myanmar's military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has obviously benefited from the interplay of great power equations. The bottom line is that China and Russia do not see the SPDC as an immediate threat to peace and stability in Greater East Asia. China and Russia also tend to view the democracy issue as Myanmar's internal affair.

Senior General Than Shwe of Myanmar-DAVID LONGSTREATH/AP

As a result, the SPDC is again beginning to broaden its engagement in regional affairs after a lull. At the time this report is written, Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo is in Myanmar. India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited the country a few weeks earlier.

Even while seeking to re-engage the wider international community, the SPDC has not given up its long-standing agenda of keeping external political influences out of Myanmar. Surely, this policy has no national consensus. Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated democracy campaigner, and her National League for Democracy (NLD) do not endorse the SPDC's paranoid policy of treating globalisation as a pernicious political doctrine. The junta is fearful of any political idea that could undermine its hold on power. And, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has remained in detention of some form or the other for many years; at present, she is under house arrest.

The SPDC is certainly aware, though, of the economic benefits and the military-related goodies it could hope to gain from globalisation. As a result, Senior General Than Shwe and General Soe Win, Myanmar's increasingly proactive Prime Minister, have been trying to make marginal adjustments to their isolationist policies. In this milieu, the junta-dictated internal discussions on Myanmar's road map for democracy, boycotted by Suu Kyi and the NLD, meander along. Above all, the SPDC has endeavoured, to a significant extent, in projecting itself as a friend of the larger international community in its drive against terrorism. It is in this context that the Myanmar junta has, in recent times, engaged India more vigorously than at times in the past. The anti-terror aspect apart, the SPDC, for long known to have developed strong links with China, has now opted for an "India tilt" as well.

The broad picture that emerges is that of a Myanmar which, under the SPDC, is beginning to experiment with a strictly controlled engagement with the outside world, which is increasingly globalised in its orientation. Such a policy of tightly controlled exposure to globalisation, largely confined to the SPDC and those who benefit from its patronage, has enabled the junta to stifle, if not snuff out, the democratic fervour at home. And major powers such as the U.S., China, Russia and India, seem content, for a variety of reasons, to leave the SPDC to its own devices. And, according to Robert H. Taylor, an expert on Myanmar politics, any "future Constitution" planned by the SPDC "will leave the military still in a dominant position within the future governance of the country".

Unlike Myanmar, Thailand, no stranger to military coups in its contemporary history, has not really sought to shun globalisation. Thailand's exposure to the trends of globalisation has given its people a certain degree of political identity as an aspiring democratic nation under a highly revered constitutional monarch.

It is this aspect that became evident, as General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the Thai coup leader who seized power last September, eased some restrictions under martial law that was imposed then. Sonthi grabbed power against a backdrop that is now becoming more relevant. There was then a somewhat chaotic search by a powerful minority of influential Thais for a democratic alternative to Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial but charismatic leader who had been twice elected Prime Minister. Not surprisingly in those circumstances, a coup master like Sonthi could not hope to underpin his "credibility" by announcing an intention to restore democracy in the fullness of time. He chose, therefore, to set a timeline of about one year for instituting a new democratic order.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin of Thailand.-RICK RYCROFT/AP

A number of military coup masters across the world have often set short timelines for restoring democracy and returning to the barracks. More often than not they have, by one stratagem or another, nullified such deadlines and promised restoration of democracy in the fullness of time.

The difference in Thailand is that the country's politics had, in recent years, moved considerably more towards some democratic norms than either Myanmar or Fiji. Thailand's interactive exposure to globalisation, inaccessible to the vast majority in Myanmar, can explain, to an extent, Sonthi's compulsions. Another fact is the gradual institutionalisation of democracy that took place in Thailand before Sonthi's coup - an aspect lacking altogether in the case of Myanmar.

Fiji, a small South Pacific state where ethnic Indians constitute a huge minority, has also had some exposure to democratic rule. However, a "culture of coups" has, no less, impinged on the consciousness of Fijians over time. Yet, unlike Myanmar, Fiji is considerably more "globalised", although its strategic importance to the larger international community is not particularly important at this stage. On balance, therefore, a local reality has helped the Fijian coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, to dodge the democracy issue. He is in no hurry to restore democracy.

Four months after he seized power last December in a bloodless coup, "inspired" by the example of Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, Bainimarama felt confident enough to counsel "patience" as the best hope for the restoration of democracy. As on April 2, he could count on the solid political support of the key ethnic Indian leader, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, who had in the past found himself toppled as a result of a chain of political events that followed a "civilian coup" against him. This new political alliance between Bainimarama and Chaudhry explains, more than the other factors, any perception of a certain equilibrium, even if that be of the unstable kind, in Fiji under a military ruler.

Of these three countries, whose coup masters are variously engaged in sustaining themselves in power, Thailand by far stands out as the theatre where a democratic challenge to military rule may occur soon. On March 30, pro-democracy protesters, estimated to number not more than a few thousands, held a rally in Bangkok. The protesters were mobilised by a new and informal coalition of Thaksin loyalists and some politically neutral activists opposed to the idea of governance by a military junta. The late-March rally was a sequel to an earlier, and smaller, show of protest against the Council for National Security (CNS), the Thai junta.

The run-up to the latest anti-CNS rally had acquired unusual political importance. Sonthi's coup was endorsed by the King as an exit strategy in a situation that was worsening by the day on account of the mobilisation of motley groups of anti-Thaksin forces. Sonthi, who belongs to the Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Thailand, decided to rule by proxy from almost the beginning of his innings at the helm. He chose Surayud Chulanont, a former Army chief, to run the day-to-day administration as the "civilian" Prime Minister under a military raj. The CNS, a group of top military officers loyal to Sonthi, was floated at the same time as some sort of a super-Cabinet.

Since last September, Thailand has been hit by three crises - a financial downturn in the Thai economy due to the uncertainties caused by the downfall of Thaksin, a businessman-turned-politician; an intensification of the Muslim "insurgency" in the southern provinces, despite Sonthi's familiarity with the problem; and the gradual regrouping of old Thaksin loyalists.

As the current military commander-in-chief and the CNS chief, Sonthi is personally in charge of the policy towards the Muslim insurgents. His latest tour of the affected provinces did not, as of early April, result in any new strategy. In the controversial general elections in April last year, these provinces had overwhelmingly voted against Thaksin, a hardline anti-insurgency leader who had actually hand-picked Sonthi as the Army chief to implement such a policy. That general election was eventually annulled through a judicial process after the King's behind-the-scenes intervention to set right a spiralling national crisis. The annulled general elections were one of several factors that made it possible for Sonthi to seize power.

With Sonthi struggling to gain the upper hand over the Muslim insurgents, the CNS decided to invite Malaysia's mediation to solve the crisis in southern Thailand. Malaysia, which has ethnic links with the southern provinces of Thailand, has already helped the Philippines, another neighbour, address some aspects of an Islamic rebellion against a majority-Christian state.

As for the post-coup financial crisis, the reasons have been traced to the inexperience of the CNS in economic management and to the battering that foreign investors' confidence took after Thaksin's fall from power. The deposed Prime Minister was, during his heyday in power, known to have improved Thailand 's macro-economic environment to lure foreign investors. Of greater importance than a mere sub-plot in the unfolding CNS story is the manner in which the junta is now trying to fix responsibility for the manner in which Thaksin's family is accused of making huge tax-free gains over the sale of a mega firm, Shin Corp. to Singapore 's prestigious Temasek. The issue under the CNS microscope is how Thaksin had "got" the relevant laws modified in time for his family to make huge tax-free gains on the sale of Shin Corp. while he was in power.

Closely linked to this Shin Corp. deal is Sonthi's recent accusations that Singapore has been "eavesdropping" on the telephone conversations among the Thai junta's military leaders. It is a charge that Singapore, which recently played host to Thaksin on a purely "private visit", has completely denied. Yet, according to Sonthi, the Shin Corp.'s satellite assets, all related to the telecom operations of the mega firm, should now be "retrieved" from Singapore. The CNS moves in this regard were still being worked out, as of early April. Both Singapore and Thailand are key members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Having ceded some initiative to Malaysia over the southern Thailand issues and having found himself with a foreign policy challenge involving a fellow-ASEAN member, Sonthi is hard-pressed to find a way to stay ahead of a possible democratic backlash at home, the other key challenge.

The new rumblings, reflected also in the precipitous fall of Surayud's popularity ratings in ad hoc opinion polls, have forced Sonthi to divest himself of some responsibility, without giving up power. Sonthi cannot, from his perspective, afford to sub-contract to Surayud either the insurgency issue or the challenge of "retrieving national assets" such as the telecom satellites. On the democracy issue, though, Sonthi has appeared willing to share responsibility with Surayud, without parting with power.

An anti-coup protest in Bangkok on March 30 by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The poster says: "Thaksin come home."-CHAIWAT SUBPRASOM/REUTERS

It is in this context that Surayud, a highly popular former military chief, sought to pre-empt the late-March protest rally by announcing that general elections would be held in December to restore democracy. Surayud had seen his popularity slump after the bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve, although he was not directly responsible for security. Not surprisingly, therefore, he now sought to humour the people with the poll announcement.

Surayud's poll move followed speculation that he and Sonthi had fallen out over the issue of whether or not strong-arm measures should be taken to pre-empt any anti-coup protest rallies. With the two not having set the record straight over this speculation before the end-March protest rally, regional observers were left to see Sonthi and Surayud as the tough cop and the soft cop respectively in their shared desire to stay on top of a possible democratic backlash.

Amid all these moves to address the key crises, the CNS finally filed some corruption charges against Thaksin's wife. While seizing power, when Thaksin was at the United Nations, the coup leaders had accused him of corruption, nepotism and indifference to the national interest. This "anti-corruption" move by the CNS in late March did not, however, impress. Some Thai commentators like Thitinan Pongsudhirak wanted to see how this would play out, if only because the rule of law had often been a casualty of the various political crises in Thailand in the past. On the whole, the Thai coup leaders, after their first six months in power, have not won the hearts and minds of the people over the issue of credibility to clean up the polity and to emerge as a democracy-restoring ad hoc administration. Although a date for polls has now been announced, the promised interim constitution is not yet ready.

Myanmar's Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has for long been under detention.-AYE AYE WIN/AP

In Fiji, where last December's coup suddenly put the clock back on the country's gradual democratisation, the issue of racial pluralism has acquired a new political resonance now. Bainimarama, in his declaration announcing the coup, spoke about a priority of mending the "racial divide" in Fiji, involving the majority Melanesians and the big minority of ethnic Indians, who owe their residence there to an old British colonial practice.

Chaudhry, the main ethnic Indian leader, is widely seen as the victim of the "civilian coup" and the follow-up military action in 2000. Against this background, Bainimarama became the Interim Prime Minister, with plenipotentiary powers, in January and inducted Chaudhry as the Interim Finance Minister. Bainimarama had played a key role in defusing the crises in 2000, but his intervention did not lead to Chaudhry's restoration as Prime Minister. (Chaudhry was stripped of that post in the wake of a sordid hostage saga.)

However, the elected Government of Laisenia Qarase, which Bainimarama overthrew last December, was also seen to have been "less than friendly" towards ethnic Indians. Unsurprisingly, "in a strange twist of destiny", as Chaudhry described his induction into the Bainimarama Cabinet, the racial issue has acquired a new dimension.

Mahendra Chaudhry, who has been made Interim Finance Minister by Bainimarama.-ROB GRIFFITH/AP

With the traditionally powerful chiefs of the Melanesians asking for early elections, Bainimarama said on March 30 that the road map, on which "further discussions" were now taking place, reflected his commitment to restore democracy. He had earlier said a "stable" environment would be needed for democracy-restoring elections.

More poignant was Chaudhry's comment on the same day. He said: "I personally have been through such experience [of losing democracy] in the past. And, I know that we have to revert to democratic rule and a constitutional government. However, it is also important for our neighbours and development partners to understand that along with democracy must go good governance."

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