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Thailand : the long road to democracy

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Thailand's bloodless coup

Which democracy would back a coup d’etat ? None, of course, and neither would I. It may not be the best of the army’s achievements, but they saw it as an emergency and Thailand’s history of coups d’etat helped to turn around even the most reticent.

They went in halfheartedly, but went in they did; and the population awaited nothing other than return to normality…

From our European perspective, it is most surprising to note that this coup d’état was not only cheered but even given a full vote of confidence. You will recall that the soldiers were welcomed with flowers and many people, including tourists and children, posed for photographs with tanks as back-drops.

No shots fired; and not a single victim. Never before has there been such a peaceful coup d’etat; it was front page news for an entire week. A coup d’etat it was, nevertheless, and one cannot deny the fact that it will go down in history whether one likes it or not. That said, there can be no justification for a coup d’état in a democracy. But was Thailand really a democracy under Thaksin? Most certainly not!

Thailand's bloodless coup

No shots fired; and not a single victim. Never before has there been such a peaceful coup d’etat; it was front page news for an entire week

What can one expect when in place of a Prime Minister one has a businessman who opens the state coffers as if they were his own wallet, spends more time managing his own affairs than governing the country, sends a militia to execute thousands – without trial – of so called drug-traffickers as part of his “war-on-drugs”, attempts to enlist his own nephews and uncles in key functions within the army and police, changes laws to suit his own companies, thus thwarting free enterprise? And so on and so forth…No need to reiterate his entire CV.

Military Coup d’Etat of 19th September 2006

Albeit a shock to our democratic values, there is reason behind this coup d’etat. One must first recognize that Thailand is not yet a democracy. It may well be on the right track and should get there before long, but as things stand today, one cannot place Thailand and our Western democracies on par, nor even expect Thailand to exhibit the kind of democratic virtues that ourselves struggle to honor.

One positive outcome of this coup d’etat is that it weeded out a particularly dangerous dictatorial seed that was about to germinate. When Thaksin’s run-up was halted by the army he was only at the stage of corruption, clientelism and populism. The military then promised to return the power to the civilians once the democratic wheels had been put back in motion by, amongst other things, changing the constitution by means of a national referendum (the first in Thai history) which was adopted by 57.81%.

It is always a worry when an army is at the helm of a country since, in the vast majority of cases, it remains in power until the next military putsch. As it turned out, the army kept its word and gave the power back to the people on 7th February 2008. That’s the positive side of the mentality of Thailand’s present army. There is a profound desire to attain democracy (this has not always been the case). It is quite remarkable to see an army playing this kind of game in a country that is still searching for an identity.

Thus, the army put a stop to a return to dictatorship and steered the country back towards the path of democracy. Not an easy task since the two Prime Ministers following this return to civil democracy (from the same party as Thaksin who in the meantime had been banned by law from ruling for a period of 5 years) were both removed from power.

With his weighted past, Samak remained Prime Minister from 29th January 2009 until only 9th September 2009, legally ousted for various ‘irregularities’ and ‘offenses’. Meanwhile, Thaksin’s party, TRT (the most populist “Thais like Thais” was dissolved by the Supreme Court for all of the ‘irregularities’ committed under Thaksin, and was immediately set up again under a new name: PPP “People Power Party”.

Samak was replaced by Somchai Wongsawas, Thaksin’s brother-in-law (!), also a member of the PPP and who was Prime Minister from 18th September 2008 until 2nd December 2008. He was renowned for the violence used to repress the “Yellow Shirts” (several deaths and numerous injured). The PPP was legally disbanded because of massive vote rigging prior to Samak’s election, so Somchai was also compelled to step down.

Denys Tellier

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