Civilian cover

Print edition : September 21, 2007

The juntas in Thailand and Myanmar are going through the motions of paying heed to the calls for democracy.

in Singapore

A display board outside the Thai Election Commission headquarters in Bangkok showing the percentage of votes in favour of a new Constitution in Bangkok.-UDO WEITZ/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A display board

Democracy has the highest acceptance in any matrix of governance in any state. The military junta in Thailand is certainly aware of this and is playing the democracy card. Exactly a month before the first anniversary of the September 19 military coup, the regime led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin organised the countrys first ever referendum on a new Constitution. On the basis of that exercise, Sonthi and his civilian Prime Minister, Surayud Chulanont, himself a former military chief, have promised to hold general elections in December to restore democracy.

In striking contrast to the Thai juntas idea of allowing the people to have some say in the affairs of their country, the long-entrenched military rulers in neighbouring Myanmar have once again stifled protest. The irony is that Sonthi met Myanmars chief military ruler, Senior General Than Shwe, at Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmars new capital, at the height of a small but determined protest in Yangon against the countrywide fuel price hike. Neither Sonthi nor Than Shwe made any significant comment on the real nature and scope of their confabulations. Moreover, the Thai juntas foreign policy is often articulated by Surayud as the civilian leader and not by Sonthi himself.

Nonetheless, an important aspect of the Thai-Myanmar ties is the current affinity between the two military juntas. The affinity, however, is marked by a major difference between the two juntas, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in Myanmar and the Council for National Security (CNS) in Thailand.

The SPDC voluntarily gave up its right to take over by rotation the annual chair of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the year 2006-2007. The position went to the Philippines as the SDPC refused to make any concessions to Myanmars democracy campaigners and their Western supporters.

Pro-democracy campaigners among the dialogue partners of ASEAN had said that they would have nothing to do with an SPDC-led ASEAN. At that, other member-states in the forum persuaded Than Shwe to make a voluntary renunciation of his right to preside over the ASEAN for a year. For Than Shwe, his friendly gesture to his fellow ASEAN leaders came with no price tag. Myanmar retained the benefits of being an ASEAN member and only gave up the responsibility of presiding over a diverse forum with a rising international profile.

A measure of this reality is now evident in a somewhat curious fashion. A few weeks ago, United States President George W. Bush asked for the rescheduling of an ASEAN-U.S. summit that was slated to take place in Singapore in early September. A top U.S. diplomat told this correspondent that Bushs move had nothing to do with anything like an American objection to sit down at the high table with the Myanmar junta leader. Instead, Bush was said to have decided against an ASEAN-U.S. commemorative summit at this stage for the sole reason of his tight work schedule.

In such a world of realpolitik, does the potential loss of the ASEANs annual chair really matter to the Thai military ruler? In the normal course, Thailand is now expected to succeed Singapore, the current ASEAN chair, for the period 2008-2009. If Myanmars experience of losing a similar right in the past is any guide, Sonthi and Surayud should now brace themselves to heed, or at least appear to heed, domestic calls for the restoration of democracy. And, unlike Myanmar, Thailand is closely networked to global economic and political systems.

In a sense, therefore, the democracy card is far more important to the Sonthi-Surayud junta than to Than Shwe. Last Septembers coup in Thailand signalled a military power grab after over a decade and a half in a land that was earlier used to having juntas at the helm. Yet, Thailand was not dumped by the U.S. as one of its major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] allies. This surely had something to do with the often-flawed and shifting worldviews of the U.S. Thailands current status as a globalised economy, too, continues to influence the calculations of not only Washington but also of the other ASEAN states.

Above all, the people of Thailand have also got used to the idea of democracy, more so since 1991, as a valuable asset that need not be mortgaged for the promises by military rulers. It is this aspect, more than any other, that has prompted the Sonthi-Surayud team to play the democracy card now. Sonthi and Surayud are not always seen to waft along on the same wavelength in relation to Thailands unresolved issues. These are a bleeding Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces of the majority-Buddhist kingdom; the general lack of a post-coup vibrancy in the national economy; and the confusion about the democratic order being promised by the Sonthi-Surayud combine.

There is hardly any serious expectation within or outside Thailand that the junta can solve these problems before it transfers power, as now promised, to an elected government in or after December. For the present, therefore, the Thais and others continue to regard Sonthi and Surayud as the tough cop and the soft sentinel of the military milieu.

Unsurprisingly, the latest referendum on August 19 was widely seen as no more than a clever attempt by the Thai junta to play the democracy card. Over 40 per cent of those who cared to vote, out of a total electorate of 45 million, said no to the new Constitution, designed to replace the 1997 peoples charter.

Surayud claimed victory in a nationally televised address even before the official vote count gained momentum. Sonthi, on the other hand, began commenting on the size of the no vote on the basis of the non-official exit polls. He quickly noted that the Surayud administration, ostensibly different from the CNS as the nucleus of the junta, should view the big no vote as a wake-up call for meeting the needs of the people. Yet, for Surayud, widely seen as the architect of the democracy card, the overall yes vote, regardless of its size, a modest 50 per cent-plus, was no mean success.

The bottom line in this Sonthi-Surayud debate is the reality about the democracy card itself. The new charter, now endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his capacity as the constitutional head of the government, is widely seen as a document for a regulated democracy.

Yet, this card is not despised although opinions vary within Thailand itself about the ideal of democracy, the possibilities of democracy and even a domestic version of it as different from the Western model. Articulated by scholars such as Pattana Kitiarsa and others, the idea of Thai-style democracy, as different from the Westminster model or the White House order, has gained greater momentum since last years coup.

A number of Thai observers have argued that Sonthis power grab has, for the first time in a country familiar with military rule, produced a debate along the lines of pro-coup sentiments and anti-junta opinion. Earlier, coups were regarded in Thailand as political aberrations, with no distinction sought to be made between a good junta and a bad one.

The reason for this new development was the sustained effort by the Sonthi-ousted Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to build a one-party regime when he was in power under the roof of democracy. Thaksin, still in self-imposed exile, was said to have sought democratic legitimacy for his design of establishing long-term political hegemony. So runs the arguments of Thaksins critics in the debate on the ambience provided by the Sonthi-Surayud team.

With the general election promised for December now looking more like a possibility, the prime issue in Thailand is no longer Thaksin. The charter referendum was seen as a vote on the Sonthi-Surayud junta and not on Thaksin. Mainly because, the ousted leader, regardless of his political charisma and penchant for controversies, has repeatedly declared, since his downfall while being at the United Nations, that he has no intention to re-enter politics.

Outside the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, Myanmar activists protest against the recent fuel price hike.-PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP

Outside the Myanmar

The Sonthi-Surayud team can at best claim a half victory in the referendum. From the juntas own standpoint, the priority is to hold general elections first. Only then the CNS can look afresh, if at all it can, at the idea of insulating Thai politics from Thaksin or any other leader with his style and capacity to win the hearts and minds of the poor and also capture the commanding heights in the states political and economic domains.

A number of voters in the latest referendum claimed that they participated in the exercise so as to force the junta to hold general elections and exit from the seat of power. This being the dominant mood, a larger debate about the blend of democracy best suited to Thailand can take place only after the promised December polls. Will it be roses in December for Thailand?

A referendum is being mentioned by the Myanmar junta as well. On August 21, the SPDC took the unusual step of publicising a few protest marches held in Yangon that day against the recent fuel price hike. Denouncing these protesters, identified as those belonging to the 88-generation (so named after the phenomenal public protest held in 1988), the SPDC said they were causing civil unrest designed to undermine the stability and security of the state.

The SPDC announced the arrest of Min Ko Naing, described as a prominent new activist inspired by the so-called 88-generation, and several others. Concurrently with this relatively rare public acknowledgment of political protest inside Myanmar, the SPDC announced its intention to hold a referendum on a new Constitution that would usher in discipline-flourishing democracy and a market-oriented economic system. No mention was made, though, of the relevance to the political future of Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi, iconic democracy campaigner.

After extending in May the continued house arrest of Suu Kyi for another year, the SPDC even said that she was no longer a factor in Myanmars politics and that she posed no threat to the current rulers. This prompted ASEAN to begin exploring the possibility of leveraging the perceived influence of India and China in Myanmar to try and secure, at the least, Suu Kyis personal liberty.

ASEAN has not so far fine-tuned any such effort to invoke the good offices of India and China. Seasoned Myanmar-observers such as Morten Pedersen have drawn attention to how the SPDC is fast building up its [own] civilian front organisations in particular the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

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