THAILAND'S military coup last weekend was a shock, and a disappointment, to those who had hoped that this thriving Southeast Asian land had left such events behind. But old political habits are hard to break: Thailand has now experienced 17 coups since its constitutional monarchy was established in 1932. Over the same period, it has had 13 constitutions. Still, the last two and a half years under Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan had seen considerable progress toward wider democracy in Thailand. Mr. Chatichai was the first head of government to be an elected member of parliament. Civilian rule was becoming more established, hemming in the traditional authority of the military over the country's affairs.
That trend toward greater civilian authority, in fact, probably underlay the recent coup. Charges that the Chatichai government was attempting to ``destroy'' the military were heard, as well as charges that corruption was out of control and only the army could quell it. Certainly the prime minister was not showing the generals the deference they had been used to in the past. His appointment of an adversary of the current military leadership as deputy defense secretary may have been a last straw.
It would be wrong to view the corruption charge, however, simply as a smokescreen for reasserting military dominance. Corruption is endemic in Thai politics and has been on the rise as the country's economy has boomed.
Also, a freer press has displayed the depth of corruption. The army, thus, had a real issue - though it's one that taints the generals' own ranks as well.
The current coup makes it clearer than ever that if Thai democracy is to progress without interruptions by coups, it must build into its institutions a system of accountability - such as powerful ethics committees in parliament - that can ferret out and punish corruption. Otherwise, the generals may continue to step into the accountability void.