Coup Ousting Thailand’s Premier Tests Democracy in Key US Ally
Coup Ousting Thailand's Premier Tests Democracy in Key US Ally
An apparent coup in Thailand raises serious questions about the stability of a key U.S. ally in Asia that until recently had served as an anchor of democracy and investment in the region.
Amid a tropical downpour late yesterday in Bangkok, tanks moved on key government offices and television stations in the Thai capital and seized command of the city while the country's caretaker prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was traveling in New York. Government-run television stations said the armed forces and the police had taken control of the country, and a statement signed by the Thai army's commander in chief imposed martial law.
The seemingly bloodless coup, the outcome of which still is unclear, underscored longstanding questions about who runs Thailand, a country of 65 million people that is a favorite of Western tourists and companies despite its opaque governance. Thailand is known as a parliamentary democracy, and early this decade Mr. Thaksin became the first civilian prime minister to complete his term.
Many analysts believe the country still relies heavily on the powers of an aging and elusive king who is repeatedly invoked as the only true source of political legitimacy there. Whether the king played any role in the attempted change in government was unclear. A return to military rule would unwind years of progress toward a stable democracy.
Mr. Thaksin cancelled a speech he was scheduled to deliver at the United Nations last night. His spokesman, Surapong Suebwonglee, who was with Mr. Thaksin in New York, said the coup leaders "cannot succeed" and was confident the coup would fail "because democracy in Thailand has developed to some...measure of maturity." But in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday, just hours before the coup began, Mr. Thaksin indicated the opposite, saying Thai democracy "is very young – the system is not mature." He seemed relaxed and unfazed by rumors of a coup that were then swirling.
"I know there are those who really support me and those who are against me," Mr.
As the coup unfolded, at least a dozen tanks surrounded Government House, Mr. Thaksin's office, but later withdrew. Thai television showed a motorcade of generals traveling along rain-slick streets to brief King Bhumibol Adulyadej on their coup. Other stations followed by broadcasting only patriotic music and announcements from the coup group. Many Thais that didn't turn on their televisions remained unaware that anything had even happened when they went to sleep last night.
The outcome of the latest power struggle is of vital importance to investors and Western governments. Although Thailand no longer is among the world's fastest-growing economies – as it was in the 1980s – it has emerged as an important staging ground for Western companies that don't want to place all their bets on China. This includes the world's largest auto makers, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Japan's Toyota Motor Corp., all of which have made the country a vital production platform.
Thailand's currency, the baht, suffered its biggest one-day weakening in three years yesterday. A large devaluation of the baht helped trigger the Asian financial crisis of 1997, highlighting Thailand's importance in the region, though many analysts believe Asia's economy is far healthier now, limiting any potential economic fallout. Thailand's stock exchange was scheduled to be closed today, along with schools, banks and government offices, the Associated Press reported.
Thailand also is viewed as a critical hub in the U.S.-led war on terror. The American Embassy in Bangkok remains one of the largest U.S. missions in the world. The U.S. and Thailand run a joint counter-terrorism training center on the outskirts of Bangkok, called the International Law Enforcement Agency, which has been central to the Bush administration's efforts to combat Islamic extremism in the region.
Joint Thai and U.S. operations were successful in tracing suspected terrorist Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, to the city of Ayuthaya in central Thailand, where they arrested him in 2003. Mr. Isamuddin was a central suspect in the planning of the Bali, Indonesia, bombing of 2002 that killed more than 200 people.
The Bush administration said it was concerned about the military takeover and hoped for a democratic solution. "We continue to hope that the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck.
The apparent coup came after nearly a year of political unrest in which Thais took to the streets to protest a government they increasingly viewed as corrupt and ineffective.
Protesters had a number of complaints about Mr. Thaksin, including his inability to settle an armed and violent separatist movement in the country's south. They also were upset over allegations of corruption related to his family's $1.9 billion sale of a telecommunications company to Singaporean investors this year. The sale was arranged in such a way that enabled the family to avoid paying taxes on the transaction.
The sale enraged many Thais. Many already had accused Mr. Thaksin, one of Thailand's richest men, of abusing his power in government to boost his wealth and weaken democratic institutions, including the country's courts.
Mr. Thaksin dissolved the government and called a new election in April to restore his mandate. Key opposition parties boycotted the vote amid continued street protests, and the country seemed rudderless until the king questioned the validity of the April election in a public address, calling on courts to settle the issue.
Thai courts subsequently invalidated the results, in which Mr. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party won the majority of seats in Parliament. Mr. Thaksin subsequently took the role of caretaker prime minister pending a new election that was expected later this year. A number of analysts of Thailand believed Mr. Thaksin's party would again win the national elections, possibly explaining the timing of the Thai military's move.
Mr. Thaksin, who has served as Thailand's leader since 2001, remains extremely popular with many Thais, especially in rural areas, for a series of populist measures that included cash payouts to small villages and subsidized health care.
He also gained favor with foreign investors by promoting an economic program to boost Thailand's economy in the face of growing competition from China. This program, which many economists viewed as a template for other, similar countries dealing with the rise of China, included efforts to privatize state companies, to negotiate free-trade pacts with other countries, including the U.S. and Japan, and to authorize large investments in new infrastructure.
Many of those initiatives – including some of the free-trade deals – have languished this year while the government was paralyzed by political stalemate. Meanwhile, many Thais believe the king and his supporters were disenchanted with Mr. Thaksin's attempts to aggressively consolidate his power.
Political analysts say the tacit support of King Bhumibol is necessary for any individual or group that aspires to govern Thailand. The 78-year-old monarch has frequently played a political role, implicitly signing off on military coups at times, most notably in 1976, and intervening to ensure the return of civilian governments, as in 1992.
King Bhumibol, who many Thais view as a quasidivine figure, rarely gives interviews and often chooses to talk indirectly.
His annual birthday speeches are carefully examined in Bangkok. In 2002, he published a biography of his favorite pet dog, a stray mongrel rescued from the streets of Bangkok, that was widely interpreted as a warning that Thailand shouldn't abandon its traditional values in a quickly modernizing world.
It is considered inappropriate for Thais to speak publicly about the king's possible role in politics, and on Monday, Mr. Thaksin denied suggestions that the king was involved in any of the recent political dramas.
"One should not bring him into politics," he said.
Nevertheless, in June Mr. Thaksin said a "charismatic person" was out to remove him from his job as prime minister. Mr. Thaksin went on to say that a mysterious figure whom he refused to name was "wielding extraconstitutional force" to push him from office.
Most Thais assumed that to mean the king or his chief lieutenant, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. By appearing to attack the monarch and his supporters, Mr. Thaksin escalated the economically damaging political conflict into a contest between Thailand's royal and military traditions, and a new, more modern way of governing a rapidly industrializing country.
King Bhumibol's advisers struck back with a show of force. Donning his military uniform, chief adviser Gen. Prem toured army camps around the country warning soldiers that their loyalty is to the king, not Mr. Thaksin.
Other people seen as close to the royal palace gave prominent speeches in recent weeks that were interpreted as critical of Mr. Thaksin's push to modernize the Thai economy and open it up to more foreign investment.
Seizing on that sentiment, local shopkeepers across the country have petitioned the king and the government in recent weeks to block big foreign-owned hypermarkets, such as Tesco PLC of the U.K. and Carrefour SA of France, that are sprouting up across Thailand and taking away their business.
These tensions came to a boiling point last night. An announcement on Thai television declared that a "Council of Administrative Reform" with King Bhumibol as head of state had seized power in Bangkok and nearby provinces without any resistance.
A separate announcement on national television, signed by Army Commander in Chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, said martial law had been declared across Thailand and the country's 1997 Constitution revoked. The general, a Muslim in the overwhelmingly Buddhist country, ordered all troops to report to their duty stations and not leave without permission from their commanders.
"The armed forces commander and the national police commander have successfully taken over Bangkok and the surrounding area in order to maintain peace and order. There has been no struggle," the announcement said.
The military coup didn't meet any initial resistance in Bangkok, although it wasn't clear whether there were any confrontations elsewhere in Thailand.
Mr. Thaksin tried to put the brakes on the coup before it took effect. He telephoned a Thai television station from New York to declare a state of emergency and ordered Gen. Sondhi to report to Mr. Thaksin's deputy, effectively stripping Gen. Sondhi of his power. After 10 minutes, Mr. Thaksin's voice cut off.
A spokesman for the coup, retired Lt. Gen. Prapart Sakuntanak said on Thai television that the power grab was temporary and that power soon would be returned to the people. Some observers said they suspected the military doesn't want to control the country, only to remove Mr. Thaksin.
"Never in Thai history have the people been so divided," Lt. Gen. Prapart said. "The majority of people had become suspicious of this administration, which is running the country through rampant corruption. Independent bodies have been interfered with so much they could not perform within the spirit of the constitution."
A U.S. official who has worked on Thai issues added that the White House would be inclined to take a relatively aggressive stance against a Thai coup, due to President Bush's stated commitment to promoting democracy in the Middle East and Asia. "We're trying to build democracy around the world, and we're just going to stand by" while there are tanks on the streets? the official said. "You could imagine the snickering in the region."
Some officials working on Thailand worry that the Bush administration, absorbed with crises in Lebanon and Iraq, didn't offer signals early enough that Washington would be opposed to a coup. Now, they say, the White House will likely have to work aggressively through the Thai monarchy to restore the democratic process, though they note that it might be too late for Mr. Thaksin's government.
Click here to read an article in “The Korean Herald.”