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Monarch reins in the CEO

Tuesday night?s military coup in Thailand is a story of the kingdom?s two most powerful men: the ousted ?CEO Prime Minister?, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2006 15:32 IST

Tuesday night’s military coup in Thailand is a story of the kingdom’s two most powerful men: the ousted “CEO Prime Minister”, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His Majesty’s endorsement of the military takeover — it came after the army had seized power and surrounded Bangkok — ensured that the coup was bloodless, and that life returned immediately to business as usual.

Well, it was not entirely bloodless. Caught in the crossfire has been democracy. “Thais are most upset about the military throwing out the Constitution,” says constitutional expert Somchai Homlaor of the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand. “They could have just suspended a few provisions. It is especially bad as this was considered a people’s Constitution, drawn up with large participation and over a long period of time.”

And the fear now is that whatever replaces the 1997 Constitution will not be as broad-based. “It will be drawn up by technocrats who will be interested in public law and administrative efficiency, but not responsive to democracy as practiced outside of Parliament through civil society and the media,” says a Constitutional expert who wished only to be identified as Sunai for fear of reprisal by the military’s Orwellian-sounding Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy. “It will undermine the political maturity of Thailand, and set the tone for the future.”

To put the drastic action in context, one must see Thailand’s recent political history as a struggle between the new order and the old one, between an “usurper” and an established elite, and between the new boardroom and the old bureaucracy.

The royal guard

Wichuda, a 25-year-old student, stands outside army headquarters, wearing a mustard-coloured fashionable wristband, which reads, “Long Live the King”. Hers is a version of a deep reverence which makes ordinary Bangkokians don royal-yellow T-shirts, symbolising the colour of Monday, the day of the King’s birth.

The 79-year-old King is officially known as Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty. In June, Thailand celebrated the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne; but in the photos and portraits around Bangkok, he is hardly ever in royal regalia — he is usually in shirt and trousers, and almost always has a camera hanging from his neck. With his glasses, he looks avuncular.

A senior Indian diplomat posted here says that though Thailand is 94.6 per cent Buddhist, the ancient Indian political concepts of Rajguru and Devaraja are deeply entrenched in this society. Still so, even after Thailand stopped being an absolute monarchy in 1932, when the first of 18 coup attempts took place.

The army was more powerful than the Constitutional monarchy, and according to political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn, it picked up King Bhumibol, a fatherless boy who was born in the USA and educated in Switzerland, whose brother died mysteriously, and who knew little about his land. It was presumed by the military that he would be a weak king.

The King, however, went about slowly re-establishing the monarchy’s pre-eminence, and by the early 1970s, he succeeded. How? Mainly a reaching out to the masses through his near 3,000 rural development projects; his lack of hunger for power; his soft-spokenness; and mainly, his lack of interference. Such humility makes him beloved, especially in the countryside.

“There is complete and genuine reverence for the King, each Thai has a personal bond,” says the diplomat.

So for the ordinary Thai, the King is above all. People will not even gossip about him. His word is final. According to Thailand expert Duncan McCargo, the King maintains his authority through “monarchic networks” of loyal royalists strategically positioned inside the bureaucracy and military.

The entrepreneurial guardian

The only other person who is beloved in the countryside is 57-year-old Thaksin. “He has the same constituency as the King,” says Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, and the only expert willing to go on record about the Palace. “Thaksin has built in four years what it took the King to build in four decades.”

Thaksin is the epitome of the new economy. He was the first prime minister from the new entrepreneurial class — the previous had been those who owned sugar mills and wheat mills. He was the first prime minister from north Thailand — he is an ethnic Chinese from Chiang Mai. He was the first prime minister to complete his four-year-term — and the first prime minister to get re-elected. “In India, we moved from single-party rule to coalition politics, but in Thailand they moved the other way,” says the Indian diplomat. This is probably because it suited the traditional ruling elite to not have power vested in a single person.

Thaksin started out as a policeman but dabbled in business, and rode the communications revolution wave to prosperity; today he is considered one of the richest Thais. By the mid-1980s he was flush with cash, by 1990 he was on the Stock Exchange, and by 1994 he had entered politics, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in two different governments.

After his party won the 2001 elections, Thaksin turned populist. He instituted free health care, low-cost loans, and debt suspension for farmers. His management saw poverty slashed by half, he repaid Thailand’s IMF loans two years ahead of schedule, and he encouraged rural entrepreneurship. No wonder the rural poor still love him.

But his brash and aggressive style won him many enemies in urban Thailand. He was hostile to the press, he was seen as corrupt, his people abused human rights. What triggered off the great middle-class hostility to Thaksin was the January 2006 sale of his family’s Shin Corporation to a Singapore telecom company for US $ 1.9 billion — and he used the law to avoid paying any tax. Local journalists say that this summer, whenever his wife Pojaman visited Bangkok’s upmarket malls, shoppers would jeer her.

What worried the bureaucratic elite was Thaksin’s slow march to becoming an “elected dictator”. In the February 2005 polls, he won 377 out of 500 seats, but was delegitimised by an opposition boycott. In the April 2006 polls, he won about 57 per cent of the popular vote. The next round was to take place in October, but as Dr Thitinan points out, “Even if elections are held under UN supervision, Thaksin will win hands down.”

So despite his insurmountable political challenge, Thaksin had to go. “Instead of waiting for Thaksin to politically weaken, they used a quick fix,” says Sunai.

It was a well-planned coup, undertaken while Thaksin was out of the country. An interim government has been promised within two weeks, a Constitution within a year, and elections by October 2007. In the meantime, the military is seeking to dismantle Thaksin’s party, to disable his chances of an electoral comeback.

“In one month, the honeymoon will be over, and Thailand will demand that the military return power to the people,” Somchai predicted.

“There is a misconception about the reaction to the current coup,” says Thitinan. “Today in Bangkok, they are split over Thaksin, but there is a lot of reservation, a lot of simmering. Thaksin is shrewd and ambitious. He has taken on the King, and he knows that time is on his side.”

First Published: Sep 24, 2006 15:32 IST