Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thailand - Coup or Countercoup?

[posted by Callimachus]

I asked my friend Kat, who has lived and worked in Thailand for the past year and a half, to explain what she sees as going on there. Though she's currently visiting in the States, she has her perspective and her contacts. Here's her answer:

Last night -- Thai time -- Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, apparently attempted to make his third stab at assuring his position as head of the Thai government. Unlike his other attempts, it may be that after this, he will retain no power or chance of assuring it in the future.

Thaksin is the elected prime minister of Thailand. He came into office some four years ago riding high on the rhetoric and promises of the TRT (Thai Rak Thai - meaning literally "Thais love Thais") party. As it was formed, the party represented all that was good about Thailand in traditional terms, but also represented the Thai desire to bring that nation back to the forefront of southeastern Asian development. Thais are particularly nationalistic, and as such are very proud of their culture and accomplishments. In a promising nation with an abundance of talented people, the picture painted in TRT political speeches seemed entirely possible to Thais, and the promises of the party brought Thaksin and TRT into power.

Thaksin was a very promising figure to Thais. He was a native son who had completed his education in the USA, had returned to Thailand, and had created a telecom company that led the nation and had expanded regionally. He was, to most Thais, a thoughtful and promising personality who appeared to be trustworthy.

But to most Thais today, that appearance was just a front. Shortly after taking office, Thaksin pressed to pass laws that limited competition to his own company. This allowed him to expand his business with little opposition, thought many people and members of Thailand's legislature complained. As a result, he transferred his personal holdings to his family, to present the appearance he had nothing to gain by the laws he pressed forward. After his (family's) company became powerful on a regional basis, he entered into a sales agreement, but performed his sale through Singapore, allowing him to collect billions in profits outside of Thai taxation laws. When this information became available to the Thai people, a growing number of Thais began to call for Thaksin to step down.

Thaksin responded as if he had done nothing wrong. As if he was being informed of some outside breach or faith and law, he instead passed laws to ban other businesses doing exactly what he had done himself. It was as if he had no belief or understanding that he had done those things he was then denouncing, and in fact publicly declared those angry with him to be wrong and himself to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

That didn't sit very well with Thais, who value honesty, character and face above everything. Thailand is a Buddhist society, believing in a sort of yin-yang form of good and bad, or basically "what goes around, comes around." Therefore a leader who is a cheat, or worse, a liar, is only going to bring bad luck on the rest of the country.

Elected officials in the legislature began to complain, and complain loudly. Others outside of the government began to write and complain as well.

This started coming to a sort of crest late last year. By January, Thaksin had taken advantage of a loophole in the Thai constitution and abolished the elected legislature that had begun to call for investigations. In effect, in response to protests against his own actions and those of members of his party, he completely removed the elected government of Thailand.

In abolishing of the legislature, Thaksin took advantage of his position and weaknesses in the Thai constitution yet again. According to the constitution, it became the prime minister's job to create an interim or "caretaker" government. This allowed him to legally step into the position of head of the "caretaker" government, which essentially preserved his leadership. In this position he was required to appoint a committee for elections, and then set dates for elections. His solution was to appoint TRT cronies and call for snap elections, to be held in March.

By February, the first major protests were being held in Bangkok by outspoken critics of Thaksin and the money-oriented government he led. These protests in BKK were week-long events, with thousands showing up. The main complaint of these protests was alleged actions by Thaksin or the TRT, and the snap elections that most members of the opposition claimed were to be held too early, leaving opposition parties without candidates to put on the ballots. Thaksin ignored the protests.

So when the elections came around, the people responded in the only way they really could, that is, by essentially boycotting them. Another feature of Thai constitutional law holds that candidates without 30% of the registered vote cannot be certified for office. At the end of the elections, TRT candidates who ran unopposed collected less than 15% of the available vote, so some 23 positions within the legislature were left unfilled. Legal challenges were immediately filed, and eventually Thai courts ruled the election to be invalid. On top of that, accusations about the conduct of the elections had been filed against Thaksin's election committee for election fraud.

In the meantime, the King of Thailand, the most revered man in the nation, had celebrated his 60th coronation jubilee in June, with world dignitaries and every Thai who could possibly come attending. During a rare speech to the nation, he urged both the Thai people and the government to look inwards for what was right, and to strive to do those things that were necessary to keep the strength and quality of the Thai people. At about the same time, he also urged Thaksin to make right on elections. Subsequently, Thaksin bowed to the wishes of his more respected leader, and called for new elections to be held in October, even while claiming those preceding them were valid.

Vast quantities of political BS have passed between then and now. But one prevailing feature has been Thaksin's attempt to proclaim innocence, and to legitimize himself and his government. This has gone as far as to point an accusing finger, lightly veiled, at the King himself, as the cause for his and his party's problems. This hasn't sat well with Thais, who do not tolerate insults to their king well, especially from other Thais. Meanwhile, in August, all three members of Thaksin's self-appointed election committee were found guilty of election fraud and sentenced to some 15 years or so in jail.

My understandings from my boss and friends in Thailand has been this. While Thaksin has been in NYC for U.N. meetings, members of the military and police loyal to him have moved to arrest and push aside opposition members prior to the coming elections in a sort of coup. This has been expected by other members of the military and police loyal to the King and the Thai people. In response, they have moved in, sealed off the government house of the interim government, have sealed off the home of Thaksin, and have placed guards around the palace of the King, presumably for his protection.

The soldiers doing this are wearing or showing yellow flags or ribbons from uniforms and equipment, which is a sign of devotion to the King. This suggests that they will hold themselves loyal to the King, who has opposition to Thaksin and a well known loyalty and affection towards his people and fully supports their efforts towards a workable democracy.

I suspect that Thaksin made his move while he was out of the country because there was a good chance he might not be successful. For whatever reason, he does not share the humility towards his fellow Thais that most have. In a country where shame is incredibly horrible, he feels none, though he is literally buried in it.

I also believe the army has stepped in to stop what has been impossible to stop otherwise. If the Thaksin of the past can be compared to that of the future, the October election will be no more fair or valid than that which proceeded it. And the Constitution provides for nothing beyond more of the same. Thaksin has made the faults of the present constitution abundantly clear to most Thais, and I believe this is why the military has, for the moment, abolished it.

At present, the majority of the army and police appear to be in charge of the government, and they in turn are apparently sworn in loyalty to the King. The King in turn is dedicated to a democratic Thailand, so unless fighting occurs between the army and other armed portions of the government, most things should be calm. Fighting cannot be ruled out, however, because Thaksin gave substantial amounts of money to police forces and other armed security forces within the Thai government, apparently to preserve their support.

The news will tell you that many Thais support Thaksin. This is true. He is supported in certain parts of the business world, but more importantly, within the more poor and rural portions of Thailand. The business support is to be expected, as he threw open doors for certain supporters. But in the farm portions of Thailand where people are the most poor, he is appreciated because he stepped into the place vacated by the King as the ruler has grown older and less able to travel.

The King and royal family have a long tradition of working alongside farmers and laborers to improve their production techniques and provided additional help when necessary. These projects still hold the attention of the royal family, but Thaksin stepped in to present himself as a representative of the King. Traditions die hard, and Thaksin wisely took advantage of that. In these areas, education levels are typically primary grades and below, so political sophistication is out of the question. If a representative of the King can come to the village and show a new way to help reduce water loss in ponds during the hot season, then he's beloved, no matter how many baht he cheated the people out of in a telecom deal.

Hopefully this helps. It's hard to know that much right now, even for me. TV coverage is under strict control at the moment, but Thais aren't stupid. They find ways to learn about what's going on, including by talking to friends in the U.S. So if anything of great interest comes up that you don't see in the news, I'll pass it on.

Also, let me say, I'm not worried. In my opinion this has been coming for months. Thaksin has made it almost impossible for the Thai people to get him out of office. I consider that the army is doing nothing more than carrying out by arms what the people have been unable to do by themselves.

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