The Hijacking of Thai Democracy

THE recent formation of the Thai government unmasked the ulterior motives of a military clique that took power in a February 1991 coup - disrupting Thailand's 14 years of democratic rule.

When the Thai military decided to undertake the coup, a fraternal group of generals invoked five justifications for commandeering the plane of then-Prime Minister Chatichai Cho- chavan and seizing authority from elected representatives. Through-out the interim period until the election on March 22, 1992, one justification after another was invalidated. The appointment on April 7 of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon as the country's 19th prime minister finally confirmed what had all along been the military's hijac k of Thai democracy.

Since the coup, the Thai military leadership - especially the generals who graduated from the national military academy in 1958 - shrewdly unfolded a grand design to institutionalize their power. Their first acts included the establishment of a panel to investigate the assets of previous Cabinet members and the appointment of a committee to draft a new constitution. The assets investigation revealed that many politicians could not explain the origins of their wealth, often millions of dollars. Yet a squa d of those very same politicians has been allowed to manipulate its way back into parliament through vote-buying and are part of General Suchinda's cabinet.

To attain legitimacy, the military junta organized and co-opted two major political parties, full of ousted politicians including Narong Wong-wan, a candidate for the premiership until the US State Department exposed his links to drug trafficking. Nonetheless, he eventually settled for a deputy prime minister slot. The dubious wealth of these unscrupulous politicians was used to buy votes in Thailand's poorer regions. Consequently, the Chart Thai and Mr. Narong's Samakki Tham parties colluded to form the

core of Suchinda's five-party coalition.

More deviously, the junta doctored the constitution-drafting process to ensure post-election power. Its chairman, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, empowered himself to appoint the 270 senators who, on crucial budget bills and no-confidence motions, are bestowed equal powers with the 360 elected lower house members. General Sunthorn was concurrently the sole nominator of the prime minister. Meanwhile, an assembly handpicked by the junta oversaw the revision and approval of the constitution, which now allows an unelected person to assume the premiership.

When General Such-inda became Thailand's prime minister - and reneged on his promise last November to steer clear of politics - his class of '58 cohorts filled the posts he vacated. His brother-in-law and classmate Gen. Issarapong Noonpakdi is now the army commander, while the Air Force's Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojananin additionally became the supreme armed forces commander.

With another classmate as head of the Navy, General Suchinda has summoned other school pals to join the Cabinet, including an academic and Bangkok's police commissioner.

Typically, Thai military leaders boast of their power. But their seeming overconfidence could be fatal. While the Thai people put up with military dictators in the 1950s and '60s, the political ambiance now is vastly different. With a vibrant and sustained economic growth rate of more than 7 percent annually throughout the last three decades, a robust and growing middle class has taken firm root in Bangkok. This new generation of Thais is unlikely to tolerate abuse.

In addition, unlike the past, the Thai people now have alternative leaders to look to for stewardship. The March 22 election, for instance, gave an unmistakable indication of Bangkok constituents' political aspirations. Of the contested parliamentary seats in the capital, former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang's Palang Dharma Party garnered 32 out of 35, a startling feat which reflects his popularity and image as a "clean" politician.

The Thai military ruling clique should not underestimate the political will and sophistication of Bangkok's population, which extirpated a military dictator in a bloody upheaval in October 1973 - giving birth to modern Thai democracy. Demonstrations in the capital have already become more frequent. It would be a tragic irony to endure a repeat of that fateful October.

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