WITH nearly 20 coups in two generations of parliamentary democracy, it is tempting to think that all of Thailand’s coups are alike in satisfying either the personal ambitions of soldiers or the political aspirations of the military.
However, it may soon become apparent that the differences between this coup and previous ones are more important and decisive than the similarities. Any selfish motives behind Tuesday night’s putsch were never evident, and increasingly seem unlikely.
Led by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, this coup may be less about a power grab than helping to secure Thailand’s stability and security. Despite complaints from democrats who prefer regime change by the ballot, coup leaders and their supporters could not see a viable future for the country if then-caretaker premier Thaksin Shinawatra returned to power after November’s planned election.
The military junta, now in full control of the country, has resolved to hand power to an interim civilian prime minister by early next month, to be followed by fresh elections in a year.
In the meantime, independent investigations are being facilitated into Thaksin’s controversial deals in business and politics, including the RM7.2bil tax-free sale of Shin Corp shares to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, and allegations of bribery involving minor parties in last April’s annulled elections.
These investigations, disrupted by Thaksin’s government, could provide legitimate grounds in a lawful manner to discredit his candidacy or disqualify him from returning to power. Although critics of the coup rightly lament its unconstitutionality, there was no known alternative in preventing a new Thaksin premiership, given the private resources at his disposal.
The overt boldness of the military action has also been seen in the context of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s role, causing speculation that the king could be instrumental to the coup.
The constitutional monarch exercises enormous influence on governance without muddying his hands in politics, but the coup might not have succeeded, or even be attempted, without some sense of royal approval.
Sure enough, coup leaders repeatedly pledged loyalty to the king, broadcast images of the monarch on army radio and television stations before the coup, and were granted a royal audience soon after it. These were all set motions that the military had developed through the years as coup culture.
However, some might have detected that the loyalty pledge seemed more resolute than usual, adding to the sense that Sonthi enjoyed a closer personal relationship with the king than Thaksin ever did. There were even reports in Bangkok within 24 hours of the coup linking the king to the leadership of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy.
By daybreak on Wednesday, the Royal Palace issued firm endorsement of the coup leaders, confirmed in an official ceremony two days later.
All speculation aside, the fact is that this swift response from the king stopped pro-Thaksin protests and likely counter-coups in their tracks.
A contributory factor to the coup has also been Thaksin’s poor relations with the king and his advisers. Apart from misgovernance in the southern provinces, instances of Thaksin incurring royal annoyance include hogging the limelight at the 60th anniversary of the king’s reign, and arguing that an unnamed personage above politics was meddling in his government.
The latter allegation implied either the king or his adviser, former premier and retired general Prem Tinsulanonda. It did not matter that Thaksin did not name the king, or that most analysts believe he was referring to Prem; what mattered was he did not make clear to the king’s subjects that it was not King Bhumibol.
Thaksin’s own personality and background as a brash, arrogant petty bourgeois nouveau riche maverick player in business and politics is as incompatible with a rich tradition of genteel diplomacy and royal heritage as is imaginable. Perhaps his already troubled premiership had just been waiting for a coup to happen.
Taking his political dividends for granted, he squandered political capital with a cavalier attitude that was contemptuous of opponents and blase with supporters.
At first he alienated southern Thais, then the urban elite in Bangkok including former allies, and then Thais in general who deeply revere their beloved king.
His foes thus grew in number, strength, and variety of origins. At the point when he was politically weakest, after being made a caretaker prime minister following a discredited election, he went abroad for more than a week for consecutive meetings.
Observers have noted how he would stay abroad when a crackdown on protesters is planned, and this appears to have been Wednesday.
According to one view, he would direct the army of Gen Sonthi against the crowds, possibly causing mayhem, then return to reprimand the army chief and sack him.
But if that had been the plan, it backfired badly. Sonthi made a pre-emptive move, and the coup came just as anti-Thaksin sentiment among the public was about to peak, again.
Sonthi the professional soldier is as much a part of the Thai Establishment as any of his military colleagues, and possibly more so than Thaksin himself. Few if any of the coup leaders are as distant from the monarchy and other revered institutions and norms as Thaksin the iconoclast.
Those who condemn this coup for ending the run of Thai democracy of 15 years cannot really celebrate that democracy for so long, just the absence of a coup in that period. The choice between democracy and its alternatives is seldom clear-cut and never neat, and progress is hardly ever unhindered.
If it is also said that people get the political system they deserve, what can Thais expect to receive? The country’s mai pen rai (never mind) culture might just be evolving an indigenous democracy with Thai characteristics, containing some extra-parliamentary elements.
In choosing the king over a prime minister when they have to make such a choice, Thais might also ask how else the king might act resolutely, or be seen to be resolute, if not through the events since Tuesday. Thaksin had rubbed too many people up the wrong way, but in the end the friction he caused with the nation’s institutions did him in.
Since this coup is not half as bent as the Thaksin administration on creating a legacy for itself, its consequences are unlikely to spill over Thailand’s borders – or its future as a democracy.