HERE’S a follow-up report from Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific on the Thai situation after the military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra Tuesday night.
POLITICS: Thais Wonder What Comes Next
By Johanna Son
BANGKOK, Sept 20 (IPS) — Many Thais are heaving a sigh of relief that Tuesday’s military coup against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra has so far been a non-violent one, but not far behind is the nagging question: Now what?
Slowly, relief — for some, at the prospect of an end to months of political tension around ousted Prime Minister Thaksin and for others, at the absence of bloodshed — is giving way to questions about what the future holds for this Southeast Asian country that has spent decades in the past under military rule.
On Wednesday, many Thais spent the day off work, surfing the Internet or glued to television broadcasts over the army channel. They were going over the public pronouncements of the coup leaders, led by army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratklin, who told diplomats and the press that an interim prime minister and cabinet would be named in two weeks and that elections are expected to be held by October 2007.
“I believe this military rule will only be for a short period, maybe three to six months,” remarked 60-year-old Chao, who works at a small hotel in Bangkok. “The military only took power from the government for a short while. They will return power to the people and not (keep it) for themselves,” he said, adding that the coup would end the political squabbling in the country.
But Noi, an accountant, added: “I don’t feel happy or sad for Thaksin because he’s out. But I feel that that the way the military carried out the coup while Thaksin is not in the country, that’s not democracy.”
“Right now, one could say Thailand is no different from Myanmar, ruled by the military,” she argued.
So far, the ruling body — called the Administrative Reform Council — has issued several pronouncements, including the suspension of Parliament, the abrogation of the Constitution and plans to draft a new one before polls can held, control over media and a ban on gatherings of more than five people. Between 1932 and 1997, Thailand had 15 constitutions.
Not all of these are good signs, says Jon Ungphakorn, an activist and until the coup, a caretaker senator. Thais are looking to see what the Council leaders say or do in the next few days and weeks, since they have said they were taking power temporarily. “After two weeks, we will step out,” Gen. Sonthi said.
Many also ask if this marks a return to the military control in the past, in a country that has seen 17 coups over the past 74 years. In 46 of those years, Thailand was under military rule.
Whether this latest coup marks is a clear step backward for democracy in this constitutional monarchy “very much depends on what happens during the next few days”, Ungphakorn said in an interview with IPS.
But he says he is disappointed by some initial signals from the coup leaders. The ban on political gatherings should be immediately lifted and there should at least be an interim constitution with strong provisions on the political and social reform process, Ungphakorn added.
He added: “If we have a civilian interim prime minister who is a champion of democracy, if they restore freedom of speech and of the press, if elections are promised within six months, if an interim constitution is brought in immediately, with the all the rights of the previous constitutions, then we might be moving forward toward an era of poll and social reform.”
“But if the present military (rulers) say that in order to eradicate the Thaksin system, they need to have power for many more months, or ban the Thai Rak Thai party (of Thaksin) from standing in a future election,” he explained, that is a different matter.
As an editorial in the on-line version of the English-language daily “The Nation” said Wednesday, “The world is watching and scrutinising. To many democracy lovers, Thaksin’s downfall…turned back the clock on Thailand’s political development.”
“The coupmakers are luckier than those before them in that much of society now believes they have done the wrong thing for the right reason. But the perception that this is something done in good faith will be extremely fragile,” it added. “The slower the coupmakers are in the pledged transfer of power back to the people, the more Thaksin will look like a ‘pretext’ and not the ‘reason’ for the power seizure.”
But some do believe that all problems of late have come from Thaksin, so that a strong force had to come in. For instance, 28-year-old businessman Worapong said: “I think the objective of the troops for this time is not to take administrative control but only to destroy ‘Thaksinomics’ and give a new system to Thailand.”
Ungphakorn says that the ouster of Thaksin — who was hours away from addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York when the coup went underway around 9 p.m. Bangkok time on Sep. 19 — was inevitable given the pressures building up over the months.
While acknowledging that large segments of society, especially in urban centers, questioned the legitimacy of Thaksin, who came to power in a landslide victory in 2001, Ungphakorn believes it would have been better if peaceful mass meetings and civil disobedience had been used to oust the unpopular leader. These would have allowed such methods, instead of intervention by troops that are meant to stay out of politics, to be the effective mechanisms for political change.
But then again, he says, “in a sense Thaksin himself had, over the years, forged his own coup” when in the years after winning the election, he “destroyed all the checks and balances within the system”, as the Thak Rai Thai party dominated the whole government, and clamped down on media freedom.
“So in a sense he himself had a staged a coup d’etat, although that could be seen as while being elected as a popular leader,” he added.
Chao recalls the 1991 coup led by Army commander-in-chief Suchinda Kraphayoon against elected prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan, but says that was “different because we were fighting against dictatorship then, but this is supported by the people.”
Earlier Wednesday, the highest military and police officials appeared on state television as the country’s rulers.
Apart from Gen. Sondhi, who is chief of the Administrative Reform Council, there is Supreme Commander Gen Ruangroj Mahasaranon, chief adviser to the Council; Navy Commander Sathiraphan Keyanon as the council’s first deputy chief, Air Force Commander-in-chief Chalit Pookpasuk, police chief Pol Lt Gen Kowit Wattna as third deputy Council chief and National Security Council secretary-general Gen. Winai Phattiyakul, the Council’s secretary-general.
In a morning statement, the coup leaders said the Thaksin government had caused “conflicts and undermined the harmony of the people as never before in history” and had been “corrupt” to the point where “violations against His Majesty the King (Bhumibol Adulyadej) are in danger of occurring”. Troops are wearing yellow bands to show loyalty to the King.
A statement read on state-run television said the King had endorsed Sondhi as head of the Administrative Reform Council, but there has been no statement from the Palace. (END/2006)
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