23 September 2006

Lessons from the Thai coup d'etat

What are the risks to a viable democracy that can be discerned from Thailand's failed experiment that ended with a military take-over a few days ago? Full essay.

16 comments:

Teck Soon said...

Alex pointed out many factors that contributed to the situation in Thailand. But he did not mention the Thai people, their culture, and their society. I would argue that their insistence on having a king, and respecting this guy for having been born a king, is also a factor.

In Thailand, it was against the law to criticise the king, but this king that the Thai people respect so much is himself responsible for approving military coups. This is not the first time. Instead of a stabilising factor, this king is part of the problem. A better king would have helped draft a more effective constitution and allow criticism of his family. A better king would not approve of coups after he leads a country to democracy.

A culture that gives honor to pharaohs because they are born into royalty, is a culture that respects authorities because they are authorities and not because of rational assessment of their abilities. The presence of a celebrity, unelected king who is respected more than the democratic institutions in a country weakens those very institutions. In other democracies with vestigial monarchies, governments give orders to kings. Feudalistic thinking, where not all men are born equal, leads to coups d'etat.

Many countries have some of the factors that Alex pointed out, including Singapore. Singapore, also has a king, but he likes to be called "mentor".

Hermes said...

What Teck Soon said.

(I really have to respond because I got so irked by reading his comments.)

Obviously you are the type that looks at Thailand as a side-line observer, visits occasionally and attempts to pass snide remarks.

The current Thai King is revered not because of his royalty or that it is a Thai culture. Look at his initiatives and the Queen's initiatives. They are genuine attempts at helping to bridge the income gap of the Thai. If you do not know what I mean, make sure you visit the arts and souvenir booths at the airports.

The King and Queen spent months in the South trying to appease the crowd. Where was Thakin? That's what irritates the Thai people because Thai's are peace-loving by nature. Once the reports of insurgence are heard, the King and Queen place themselves in the middle of it. This is what endears them to Thais. The insurgencies have been going on for a REALLY long time. What has Thaksin done? Absolutely nothing.

The reverence that is attributed to the King and Queen is borne out of the hearts of the Thai. Not whatever nonsense you are spouting or hoping to spread.

Thaksin's policies are populist measures and aimed to consolidate his position. But most of his policies will threathen to send Thailand down a path of destruction if not tampered with.

I mean, free televisions and cheap medical help. But ultimately at who's expense? The rural people are not going to care because they need to see only the present not the future and what Alex said is very true.

And, from my friends in Thailand, the King is the solution this time. Also, the King has always distanced himself from politics. So, you may want to re-do your research before making unfounded speculations.

This is coming from someone who has spent 2 years of his life staying, working and living with Thais in Thailand, in the rural areas like Nakhon Sri.

Next time, when you bitch about the Singapore situation, try not to bring in Thailand. For one thing, Thailand is the only country where the third sex is LAWFULLY recognized and SOCIALLY accepted. Singapore is NEVER going to reach that kind of tolerance.

- Signing off, respectfully, with a 'wai'.

Teck Soon said...

To the commenter hermes:

I certainly do not approve of Thaksin or his policies, and my criticism of the king is not a voice of approval for Thaksin. It is the institutions that have a problem, and I stand by my remarks about the monarchy bearing some of the blame. The king IS political, as illustrated so well in Alex's photograph of the general sitting on the floor in front of the high king.

Of course I am trying to make "snide" comments, because it irks me greatly to see men kneel down on the floor before other men, and it irks me that this king, as much "good" as he has done, cannot be criticised. Teck Soon, on the other hand, welcomes criticism and thanks hermes for it.

There are those in Singapore who cannot be openly criticised. As hermes said, Singapore's probably worse off in the long run, especially regarding social acceptance of sexual minorities.

I don't think its necessary for me to reveal how long I spent in Thailand. I expect my comments to be criticised based on their own merits, or lack thereof.

Anonymous said...

The present situation is a direct result of the royal court's DELIBERATE weakening of institutions lying outside of their own network of power. Thaksin knew what he was doing when he decided to turn rural Thais into his power base. Bangkok elite doesn't care about what happens in Isan. All those poor farmers might as well disappear suddenly and Bangkok's "chattering classes" who are now moonlighting as the generals' cheerleaders would emit a huge sigh of relief. Thaksin was the first politician who wanted rural Thais to share the fruits of the country's economic development. Yes, he was just expanding his power base - he's a politician and not Mother Teresa. But he broke the usual Thai-Chinese big business mold of chumming up to the royalists in exchange for more business opportunities. Despite his avowed "deep respect" for Lee Kuan Yew, his economic policies were directly opposite of those of the PAP. He was stimulating domestic consumption and, by handing out cheap credit, trying to turn more rural Thais into becoming genuine economic agents. This was anathema to the royal court with their "back to the Sukhothai times" delusions. Instead of the rural Thais' being loyal subjects of the king depending on his largesse, they could become their own masters and (oh, the horror of it!) even realize that "royal projects" are what they are - a deeply political exercise, not even half as successful as the royalist propaganda machine trumpets them to be. Thaksin wasn't certainly a nice likable chap - his dealing with the insurgency in the South was disastrous, the sale of Shin Corp shouldn't have been done the way it was (even if, as it turns out, there was nothing illegal there) etc. But he wasn't even half as bad as the anti-Thaksin camp paints him to be. The net result is out there for everyone to see - Bangkok's middle class doesn't give a damn about democracy, the king is more comfortable with the generals than with elected leaders (duh!) and will do whatever it takes to preserve his political power.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

I partly agree with Anonymous, 23 Sept 17.04. Thaksin was probably the first PM in a long while who gave thought to what could be done for the rural masses. As I said in my article, Thaksin's program had its good points. One might debate whether the specific programs were practical, sustainable or efficient, e.g. giving loans liberally, that in many cases were used by farmers for consumption rather than investment, but intention-wise, it marked a change from the pattern of Bangkok governments forgetting about the provinces altogether.

The rural masses' support for Thai Rak Thai was real. Thus my misgivings about Limthongkul's campaign to unseat Thaksin. What right does anyone have to demand that the party that won an election shouldn't choose its own leader to be PM?

One might dispute how fair the elections had been since Thaksin also stacked the Election Commission, but it is undeniable that he did have the majority of the people behind him.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

As for the role of the king, I don't think it is necessary to be disrespectful of a monarch who is deeply revered by Thais to see the principle behing the issue.

The discretionary actions of a king, any king, is ultimately an exercise of the Rule of Man, not the Rule of Law.

The sad thing then is that the more people look to a king to break political deadlock or resolve disputes, the more a country relies on the Rule of Man.

No doubt that in the Thai case, lots of people believe Bhumipol acted with good intentions and that Thaksin himself was no exemplar of the Rule of Law. Thaksin too behaved in a way more like the Rule of Man - himself. So between the Rule of This Man and the Rule of That Man, the middle-class Thais of Bangkok might have plumped for the king.

But it doesn't alter the point that Teck Soon, I believe, is making - that in the end, it still hurts the principle of the Rule of Law.

Anonymous said...

(I'm the same Anonymous, 23 Sept 17.04 :))
Thaksin too behaved in a way more like the Rule of Man - himself. So between the Rule of This Man and the Rule of That Man, the middle-class Thais of Bangkok might have plumped for the king.

I agree with that. Moreover, even a year ago I couldn't even imagine that one day I'd be defending Thaksin. Unfortunately, the royal power networks permeat all the supposedly "independent" institutions. Even if the elected leader has the best of intentions and isn't power-hungry at all, s/he would be put on a collision course with the royal court had s/he choose to implement any policies that are considered undesirable by the royals. Another problem is that the elected leader can be harshly criticized (look at the pummeling Thaksin was getting from the media) whereas even an indirect criticism of the royal court can bring about accusations of lèse majesté and harsh prosecution. Thaksin only dared to crisize (also indirectly) Prem Tinsulanonda, not the king.

Anonymous said...

Thaksin's downfall began when 'absolute' power got into his head after several years in power and he tried to emulate LKY's PAP...Didnt he say that he wanted to fashion his Thai Rak Thai party after the PAP? He first tried to muzzle the Thai media but got nowhere...he then tried to do what the PAP does best by lodging several defamatory suits against his political opponents esp Khun Sonthi (not the coup leader) earlier this year...b4 the thai high court could even sit to hear the suits, the Thai King indirectly ordered him to drop his suits immediately by stating in his national speech that National leaders shld not be over-sensitive but be able to withstand and counter criticisms (try telling that to LKY and his MIWs)...finally Thaksin's greed in selling 43% of his Shin Corp to Temasek for US$1.9 billion,tax-free, was the last straw that broke the camel's back...leading to the royally-endorsed coup de tat by the military!

Thaksin thought if the PAP led by the Lees can do it,why can't he? He forgot to consider the following (I cld have advised him on this for payment of just a million Bahts (S$42,000) ) :
(1) Thailand has 14X more people than S'pore
(2) Thais are generally fearless people compared to our fearful, kiasi/kiasu soul-less people
(3) Thais do not have the history we have...of being oppressed first by the British and then the Japanese and then......
(4) LKY took 50 years to discipline and control our minds using lessons he learnt mostly from the British (remember the ISAct?).How many years did Thaksin have to do that?Not even a decade..
(5) Thailand has an independent fearless King for centuries, Singapore has a controversial "elected" Prez nominated by the ruling party.

You have fat hopes Mr Thaksin, if you think you can do a Singapore! We are as different from Thais as apples and oranges. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

In fact, the royal court is like the PAP in Thailand. Thaksin was to lose, that's true.

Anonymous said...

guys, why spend time discussing what Thais should or should not do? look at what Singapore should or should not do. Like IMF meeting, with Thailand Singapore thought it best to deal with the rich and powerful; the problem is whether the rich and powerful always stay that way

IMF delegates would have gone home wondering about that too: things seem good in singapore, but...

Hermes said...

Try not to twist my words, I said the King distance himself from politics and not that he is not involved in politics. Read this.

(http://www.parliament.go.th/files/library/b05-b.htm)

The King is the uber figure and appoints the PM. If you look at the constitution, actually, Thaksin is not allowed to do a lot of things without His consent (the King needs to sign) but he got his way anyway. So the King really tries not to interfere even though it is His right to do so. Actually Thaksin already insulted the King once before when he had to prepare His birthday. If he were truly the LKY that's painted here, he would have smacked Thaksin, just because he CAN.

I agree with Alex, Thaksin started off right when he reversed the people's views that Bangkok cares about the other regions. However, are his intentions geniunely good? Time will tell and based on today's news, we will know soon enough. No point bickering.

Of course, like nay-sayers do, unless you wish to argue the results maybe rigged because he is not in Thailand etc. Then I have only one thing to say, what the heck is he doing in UK? He should return home and defend himself, right about now.

- Signing off, with a respectful 'wai'

recruit ong said...

Yes, let's apply LKY's logic to Thaksin. If he does not return to Thailand to defend himself it means he has something to hide, and therefore guilty hahaha. But let's see if the current interim govt will prosecute him in his absence, which is wat LKY and his courts would do hehe.

Hermes said...

To recruit ong,

If that was a tongue-in-cheek comment, very 'farnie leh'.

But seriously, Thaksin is no dummy when it comes to political maneuvers. Refer to the links below. I'm pretty sure most of them are comments from out of Thailand.

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2006/06/20/headlines/headlines_30006856.php

http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=15989

http://www.irrawaddy.org/aviewer.asp?a=5478&z=154

http://www.irrawaddy.org/aviewer.asp?a=6188&z=154

The military is afraid his supporters will cause blood-shed even AFTER they have full control. Thaksin has that kind of power (or that many cronies) it seems.

Being a seasoned politician who gets away using clever tricks, he KNOWs what's going to happen if he doesn't defend himself now back home.

So why doesn't he do it? Or perhaps he has already tried it but he knows he's guilty or he's bound to have some dirty linen for others to wash or what? Why hide in UK for political asylum of all places? His daughter's studying there (duh) and he's there for a 'visit' (duh). Singapore is nearer to home or even Malaysia?

Chuah Siew Eng said...

Hi, Alex.

FYI, for the record, the Thai website that was shut down is http://www.19sep.org

Sorry for the error.

Anonymous said...

To Hermes:

1) Thai constitution is worth less than the papaer it's printed on.

2) If you consider poor farmers in, say, Roi Et Thaksin's cronies, then yes, he has lots of them.

3) Will the generals reveal in the course of their probe into Thaksin's sale of Shin Corp just how much much richer Siam Commercial Bank became due to this deal? Siam Commercial Bank belongs to the crown.

Anonymous said...

if there's anyone who would like to read about Thaksin, try this book:

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan. Corruption and Democracy in Thailand. 2nd ed. Bangkok: Silkworm Books, 1996.

It is engaging. Pasuk is a Professor of Economics from Chulalonkorn University, Bangkok.

Thaksin introduced a new kind of corruption: policy corruption.
He introduced policies that benefitted himself and cornies. The army was politicised once again after he came to power. He placed his classmates, friends within the ranks of the army and police.The NCCC, which tried to remove him due to corruption became quite powerless after he replace the commisioner. He was in control of every institution right up to the constitutional court. That being said, I think the primary reason why he was deposed by the army was because of how he handled the restive South.
I think the King himself must have deliberated for a long time before suppporting the coup. The problem is that if Thaksin stands for election again, he is going to win. He has made use of the loopholes in the 1997 constitution to his advantage. The senate, supposedly taked with the responsibility of oversight is filled with Thaksin's man.