In with the old, out with the new in Thailand
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In with the old, out with the new in Thailand

The country's muddy road to democracy was kicked off with a coup in 1932, which ended the centuries-old absolute monarchy .

india Updated: Sep 21, 2006 13:46 IST

Military coups are not new for Thailand. The country's muddy road to democracy was kicked off with a coup in 1932, which ended the centuries-old absolute monarchy and replaced it with a pseudo-democracy under a constitutional monarchy.

Seventy-four years and at least 17 coups later, Thailand is still solving its political crises with military men mobilising troops and tanks in the streets of Bangkok, the capital.

The last coup in 1991 was led by army Commander-in-Chief Suchinda Kraphayoon to oust Thailand's first truly "elected" Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan to put an end to his "buffet cabinet".

Similarly, the military political blitzkrieg staged Tuesday night by Army Chief Sondhi Boonyaratklin was necessitated by rising corruption, a growing rift in national unity and prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's undermining of independent agencies and the monarchy.

Sondhi, in his first public address, insisted he was not interested in becoming a "substitute ruler" and pledged to return power to the people "as soon as possible".

What is new about this coup is its target - Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party - or what some commentators term as the "Thaksin Order".

Like him or not, Thaksin, a billionaire former telecommunications tycoon who first became premier in 2001 on a platform of populist policies designed to win over rural and urban poor, became a new phenomenon on Thailand's political landscape.

Not only was Thaksin the first political leader to fully appreciate that government handouts were a far more successful means of winning elections and securing followers than vote-buying - Thailand's traditional method - but he was also the first leader to benefit from the enhanced executive powers of the premiership under Thailand's new 1997 Constitution.

Ironically, the "liberal" constitution was designed to strengthen the political party system over the military, while introducing new independent bodies such as an election commission, counter-corruption commission and constitutional court to assure checks and balances on the executive powers.

What the constitution did not foresee was the emergence of a prime minister like Thaksin with tremendous spending power.

Thaksin was one of Thailand's richest businessmen before becoming prime minister.

When his family sold off 49 percent share in the Thaksin-founded Shin Corp - Thailand's largest telecommunications conglomerate - to Temasek Holding of Singapore in January, this year, the clan earned another $1.9 billion in tax-free gains.

While the sale may have been a smart business move (Thaksin pushed through legislation that hiked the maximum holding by foreigners to 49 percent in Thai telecommunication companies three days before the sale) it has proven his political downfall.

The sale sparked anti-Thaksin street protests in Bangkok that eventually forced the premier to dissolve parliament in February and call for a snap election on April 2.

Thailand's three main opposition parties boycotted the April 2 polls, which Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party won.

The constitutional court, however, annulled the results in May after Thailand's much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej said he had found the election undemocratic and urged the judiciary to act.

Thaksin's political fortunes have been on the decline since -- with the game finally coming to end with Tuesday's night coup in Bangkok while the caretaker premier was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

How Thaksin failed to see the coup coming remains a mystery.

"He underestimated the rift between his government and the military," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Thaksin has been pushing his luck with General Sondhi for weeks, first blaming an alleged assassination attempt against him on the military and then tampering with the military's annual reshuffle.

Now that the military is back in charge, most political observers believe they will stay there until they have succeeded in unravelling the "New Thaksin Order".

"The order he has constructed over the past five years is something they have to get rid of, otherwise Thaksin's supporters and loyalists, who are widespread and entrenched, could make a comeback," said Thitinan.

Thitinan predicts that the military will first set up an interim civilian government this week and then launch the process of drafting a new anti-Thaksin Constitution, with a new election not expected until late 2007 or early 2008.

In other words, returning power to the people may take more than a year, partly because the people in the past have shown a tendency to vote for Thaksin. His Thai Rak Thai Party has won the past three elections by landslides.

"I think we need an election within six months. But the problem is I don't think it will be easy for the military to allow an election very soon, because they are afraid of the Thai Rak Thai Party.

But if you restore democracy then obviously the party has the right to contest an election," said Jon Ungphakorn, a former senator.

First Published: Sep 21, 2006 13:46 IST