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 overshadowed even questions about his ethics, his management of the country, his commitment to democracy, and his divisive leadership style--was that he had consistently refused to defer to the palace. Immediately following the coup, the top brass gathered at Bangkok's Chitralada Palace for a two-hour midnight-meeting with King Bhumibol. It was clear within days that the king supported the overthrow.

It is a familiar story. Thaksin himself rose to political prominence as a direct consequence of events precipitated by Thailand's last coup, in February 1991, against Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan. A messy power transfer followed, culminating in the events of May 1992, known as "Black May," when scores of unarmed people protesting a rigged election were shot dead by the army. The resulting crisis--which was tentatively resolved by King Bhumibol, who compelled the prime minister to resign--forced the military back into the barracks and launched a national debate about political reform that eventually found expression in the widely praised constitution of 1997.

Crafted by the great and the good of Thailand, including many senior royal advisers, this "people's constitution" aimed to institutionalize democratic politics so as to preempt the need for both coups and royal interventions in the future. But the new charter also sanctioned greater prime ministerial power, which permitted Thaksin, a fabulously rich telecommunications magnate, to achieve unparalleled political dominance after his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais love Thai") Party won elections in a landslide in 2001 and 2005.

Disquiet with Thaksin began over a range of issues, including the mishandling of violence in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern border provinces, where 1,700 people have been killed since January 2004. But anti-Thaksin protests in Bangkok in September 2005 took as their main focus his alleged disrespect for the monarchy. The question of "royal powers"--the theme of a book by Pramual Ruchanaseri, a parliamentarian and a rogue member of Thai Rak Thai--became hotly discussed. Who had the final say over decisions such as appointing army commanders or the auditor general: the prime minister or the king? Thaksin had crossed a line, many were starting to believe, by asking the monarch to sign off on key appointments without consulting him.

These discussions showed that the democratic ideas supposedly planted by the 1997 constitution lay in shallow, sandy ground. In any contest between Thaksin and the palace, there could only be one eventual winner. When Thaksin's family sold Shin Corp., the country's largest telecommunications and mobile phone company, to Singaporean investors in January 2006, he soon found the forces of Thailand's political establishment fully mobilized against him.

Last February, Thaksin declared on his weekly radio program that he would be happy to step down from the premiership "If the King whispers in my ear." Innumerable hints and whispers followed, but the embattled prime minister refused to hear them. Privy council president Prem Tinsulanond, former premier Anand Panyarachun, and Prawase Wasi, a leading social reformer, were among the many senior figures to rebuke Thaksin for his refusal to bow out.

For most informed observers, the question throughout 2006 has been not whether Thaksin would eventually be forced from power but by what means. A farcical snap election in April, which was boycotted by the opposition, was quickly annulled. Despite persistent calls for a royally appointed government--in effect, a royal coup without a military component--the king apparently preferred to leave the courts to resolve the ongoing crisis. One pending case might have dissolved Thai Rak Thai and banned Thaksin from politics for an extended period.

But legal remedies proved slow and uncertain, and although Thaksin kept talking about "taking a break" from office, he never formally resigned as prime minister or nominated a successor to head his party. Another possibility was that Thaksin might be toppled by massive street demonstrations. One such demonstration had been scheduled for September 20 (the day after the coup occurred). But there were fears that Thaksin supporters might use the occasion to whip up violence, so as to create a pretext to crack down against the opposition.

Few objective observers will shed tears for Thaksin, who could claim electoral legitimacy but had proved so divisive that he could no longer govern Thailand effectively. Still, it is deeply distressing that, despite all the supposed lessons of the turbulent 1990s, Thailand's civilian political institutions could not rein in a prime minister who began to abuse his powers and authority. The September 19 coup is a deeply anachronistic event that sets Thailand's political clock back by 15 long and bitter years. If the legacy of the 1991 coup is anything to go by, popular disillusionment will develop this time, too, with attendant consequences that could eventually overshadow the military intervention itself.

Simply put, Thailand's citizens have higher political expectations today than they did in 1991 and are unlikely to find an extended period of quasi-military rule very palatable. If the new administration allows Thaksin to retain some of his power or political influence, pro- and anti-Thaksin divisions could easily re-emerge. Even once civilian rule is restored--which Sonthi has promised will happen by October 2007--the threat of renewed military interference or violence on the streets of Bangkok will remain very real.

To date, the public stance of the United States has been far too ambiguous: a strong statement from a senior member of the administration is overdue. Thaksin deserved to go, but not in this crude, retrograde fashion, which sets a dangerous precedent both for Thailand and the wider region.

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