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Thai democracy in tatters?

By Minh Nguyen - posted Wednesday, 4 October 2006

A former army commander who once declared "the army should never be involved in politics", Surayud Chulanont, was appointed Thailand's interim prime minister at the weekend. But the irony of this appointment matters little in a coup marked by paradoxes.

From day one, the coup against a democratically elected government and the subsequent crackdown on the media and political activities were branded by the generals as an attempt to salvage Thai democracy.

Coup leader General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin had accused the telecommunication tycoon and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption, nepotism and "undermining the democratic norms".


Admittedly, the complaints against Thaksin are not far off the mark. Thaksin's wealth and power, which once satisfied Thailand's need for political stability, also enabled him to undermine institutions designed to preserve political checks and balances.

This style of bully boy governance would explain another paradox of the recent events in Thailand: the casual reaction from the locals towards the coup. Perhaps they saw no difference between a slow or speedy death for Thai democracy.

The memorable images of people offering flowers to troops suggest that many Thais are relieved, if not glad, to see the self-made billionaire go, even if the means were less than ideal. However, minor incidences of vandalism are a reminder that there are also losers under the new regime.

The issue would not have been so complicated but for Thaksin's popular support among the nation's poor people. He was seen as a political innovator who introduced policies and programs which fostered entrepreneurship and helped them. His government gave rural poor people government-subsidised health care and introduced a debt moratorium.

They paid the incumbent government in kind by giving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party an overwhelming victory at last year's general election and again last April.

However, several months have passed since the election and, in rural Thailand, the impact of the king's tacit endorsement of the coup remains unclear. The few political protests against the coup indicate that there may have been a mood swing outside the nation's capital.


This notion is supported by results of a survey of 2000 people, conducted by the Bangkok Post on the first day of Thailand's new military rule, which found nearly 84 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of the regime change.

This highlights a final paradox of what Colum Murphy of the Far Eastern Economic Review calls "Thai-style democracy", which fuses the popular will with the unquestioned authority of the king. This is the only system that will work for Thailand, the king's right-hand man, General Prem Tinsulanonda, was quoted as saying on the day of the coup.

The idea that the Thais love their democracy as much as their king is hinted at in an upcoming report on Asia Pacific non-governmental organisations' (NGOs) perceptions of Australia, conducted by Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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Article edited by Mark Bahnisch.
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This article was previously published in Eureka Street.

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About the Author

Minh Nguyen is a researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre and has authored several reports on the human rights situation in the Asia Pacific region.

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