Thai coup uproots a thin democracy

Thailand's king endorsed the military leaders of Tuesday's bloodless overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin.

A bloodless coup in Thailand has upended the country's fragile democracy, to the delight of many middle-class activists who had campaigned for months for the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister. But the manner of his removal by Army officers loyal to the Thai monarch exposes the shallow roots of the democratic institutions that grew in the shadow of past military regimes.

Mr. Thaksin, whose party has won three elections since 2001, had repeatedly accused his opponents of plotting a coup. Wednesday, Thailand's king endorsed the military coup leaders, who have pledged to restore civilian rule within weeks.

The readiness of self-styled democrats to condone the military action reflects the conservative grounding of Thailand's urban political culture, which is shaped more by royalist hierarchy than well-defined checks and balances on a strong executive.

"They should use the rule of law to pin him down, rather than use a gun to get him out," says Pasuk Phongpaichit, coauthor of a critical biography on Thaksin. "I think it's important now that the coup group puts in place a new Constitution very quickly, or it could backfire and impact the economy."

Other critics of Thaksin, however, say that given his lock on the political system, and gutting of institutional checks and balances, there was no other way to end the stalemate. Thaksin packed courts with allies, politicized the nominally nonpartisan Senate, and muzzled television news. During a 2003 antidrugs campaign, Thaksin cheered when over 2,000 suspected dealers were shot dead in what rights groups called extrajudicial killings.

"There was no peaceful solution because Thaksin didn't play by the rules of the game, he only played by his own rules. We've tried all possible means to remove Thaksin," says Kasit Piromya, a member of the opposition Democrat Party and former ambassador to the US. "Thailand has not been a democracy for the past five years. Thaksin turned the whole democratic system into an authoritarian regime."

The coup leaders described their action as a response to deepening social rifts and to widespread corruption. "The government's rule was widely tainted with corruption and to benefit cronies," said Army commander Sondhi Boonyarataklin. "Letting that situation continue could have hurt the nation's security and economy."

The new ruling council has the power to censor domestic and foreign news reports and ban public gatherings of five or more people. But General Sondhi vowed to restore constitutional rule and undertake political reforms – a rallying cry of the opposition parties in Parliament – within two weeks. He said no action would be taken against members of the ousted government. However, several Army officers loyal to Thaksin have reportedly been detained, including the head of the civilian intelligence agency.

As for Thaksin himself, it remains unclear if he would return immediately to Thailand or seek diplomatic support as the leader of a government-in-exile, said an aide. Thailand is a close US ally and Thaksin has positioned himself as a trusted partner in the US-led war on terror. Thai news reports said Thaksin flew Wednesday to London where his daughter is enrolled in university.

The coup leaders might face a situation down the road where Thaksin returns – and wins another election.

On the streets, Bangkok residents wearied by months of political gridlock struck a note of cautious support for the coup. But many also said they would again vote for Thaksin if he returns to politics. "I was glad we had a coup because the political problem had gone on for such a long time," said Rittiporn Yomrum, a motorcycle driver. "But I would still vote for [him] again."

Analysts say the coup-prone military has to move quickly to install a civilian administration under royal endorsement in order to preempt any public backlash. The last time the military seized power in 1991, the public mood soured after the coup leader clung to office, then ordered a violent crackdown on protesters in Bangkok the following year. King Bhumibol then intervened to steer the country back from the brink of further civil strife.

Memories of that bloody event were revived this year by a wave of anti-Thaksin protests in the run-up to an April election that was later annulled by the Constitutional Court. A new vote was due to be run in November by a newly elected commission.

Analysts had predicted another win for Thaksin, who commands the loyalty of millions of rural Thais. He gained their support with subsidized healthcare, a freeze on farmers' debts, and cheap loans to villages.

But middle-class voters began turning their backs, angered by reports of widespread corruption in Thaksin's cabinet and his brash style of governing and refusal to countenance public criticism. Urban elites were dismayed by the appointment of his family to key roles in the military and police, and his attempts to radically overhaul the top-heavy government bureaucracy.

Unable to win at the ballot box, Thaksin's opponents now seem ready to turn the clock back on the gains of the 1990s, when the Constitution was changed to promote more stable parliamentary politics, a shift that spawned Thaksin's winning party machine, at the expense of the royalist old guard.

Thaksin made few efforts to woo the palace during his first term, ignoring protocol that for decades has put the monarchy above elected officials. The king offered only indirect criticism of Thaksin, leaving it to his aides to deliver public rebukes.

Foreign diplomats were caught off-guard by the coup timing, given the unfavorable light it casts on Thailand at the UN and the preparations to rerun the elections.

"It seems almost idiotic to do this right as Thaksin is about to get up on the biggest stage in the world," a Western diplomat says. "There was no real obstruction to reform or a national election."

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