Courtesy Reuters

Toxic Thaksin

On June 23, 2006, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sent an extraordinary letter to President George W. Bush, which conveyed something of his country's turbulent politics during 2006:

"There has been a threat to democracy in Thailand since early this year. Key democratic institutions, such as elections and their observance of Constitutional limitation on government, have been repeatedly undermined by interest that depend on creating chaos and mounting street demonstrations in Bangkok as a means to acquire political power that they cannot gain through winning elections. Having failed to provoke violence and disorder, my opponents are now attempting various extra Constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people."

Thaksin had been in deep trouble since January, when public opinion in Bangkok--first among the political elites then more broadly--began to turn against him. Still, his opponents faced a formidable challenge: given Thaksin's remarkable track record of handsomely winning elections and his strong support in the populous northeastern and northern regions of Thailand, it was not clear how he could be ousted. For months, the opposition called for King Bhumibol to intervene, hoping he would invoke the constitution to appoint a royally ordained government. In the end, on September 19, Thaksin was removed in a traditional military coup d'état, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, an army commander who had recently declared such measures obsolete.

The group behind the overthrow called itself "The Administrative Reform Group under the Democratic System with the King as the Head of State." In its initial statement, it charged that "the administration [of Thaksin] is usually bordering on lese majeste"; and in the second, "Frequently, the dignity of the Thai people's King was affected." The message was clear: the coup d'état was staged by forces loyal to the crown, who believed that Thaksin had treated the king disrespectfully and were determined to bring down his popularly elected but controversial government. Tanks used in the overthrow were decorated with yellow ribbons, a color associated with the royal family.

Thaksin's primary offense--which

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