Thailand: All the King’s Men

By Shawn W Crispin
Asia Times

BANGKOK – As Thailand’s military settles into its provisional authority role and awaits to see which prominent figure assumes the interim leadership role, for all intents and purposes His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has, through his army proxies, taken absolute control of the kingdom.

The military coup led by army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratklin that ousted caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday night has put Thailand back on a familiar political course: under a royally endorsed interim government.

Images broadcast on national television of Sonthi meeting with King Bhumibol at his palace indicated overtly to the general population that the military’s extra-constitutional move had the monarch’s tacit approval.

The coup of a democratically elected caretaker government, suspension of the country’s progressive 1997 constitution, seizure of the national broadcasting frequencies and detention of politicians associated with the ruling political party would on the surface appear to be a giant step backward for Thailand’s democratic development.

That’s at least the opinion pouring in from global quarters. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan mildly condemned the coup, saying, “This is not a practice to be encouraged.”

International rights groups also condemned the military-led clampdown. “Thaksin’s rule had seriously eroded respect for human rights in Thailand, but suspending basic rights under the constitution is not the answer,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Thaksin, who had been in New York for a UN General Assembly meeting, will no doubt play on such international opinions to make his case to return to the country and contest democratic elections scheduled for November. But this coup, with clear backing from the royal palace, unlike previous military interventions in Thai politics, has significantly been warmly received by Bangkok’s elite and middle classes, including well-known democratic-reform advocates.

Although Thaksin is immensely popular in the country’s rural countryside – where about 80% of the country’s voters reside – real power in Thailand is still highly concentrated in Bangkok, and Bhumibol’s authoritative endorsement of the caretaker premier’s removal signals clearly that the coup is final.

The military’s newly formed Administrative Reform Council (ARC) justified its seizure of power on the grounds that the Thaksin administration’s actions had frequently bordered on “lese majeste” and had created “social division like never before”. The council also indicated that Thaksin had “politically meddled” with state units and independent organizations and “faced growing doubts … of widespread reports of corruption”.

Those complaints resonate strongly across Bangkok’s elite and middle classes, which at first supported but five years later now widely view Thaksin’s divide-and-rule style of governance as a bigger threat to Thailand’s democratic future than temporary military rule. Conservative elements close to the palace had tacitly supported the massive anti-government street protests that kicked up late last year, gathered pace early this year, and eventually pressured Thaksin to declare snap polls in late February.

The mainstream media have widely misinterpreted the potent but peaceful protests as being galvanized by the Thaksin family’s controversial US$1.9 billion tax-free sale of its 49% holdings in the Shin Corporation to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. To the contrary, the protests, which were later co-opted by various special-interest groups aligned against the government, were first galvanized and primarily sustained by the explosive claims first made by firebrand media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul that Thaksin was on particular occasions disloyal to the throne.

Democratic-minded Thais have since loyally donned royal-yellow shirts to demonstrate their support for the King, months after the elaborate June celebrations that marked the 60-year anniversary of his accession to the throne. Thaksin, who had stepped down as prime minister in April hours after a closed-door meeting with Bhumibol, surprised many when he resumed his caretaker role the following month to plan and preside over the high-profile royal celebrations.

The ARC’s statement on Tuesday accusing Thaksin of lese majeste has brought the long-brewing tensions between the prime minister and monarch into the open. A groundbreaking academic paper that has recently made the rounds among Thailand’s intelligentsia, written by Thailand expert Duncan McCargo, argues that Bhumibol had over the years maintained his authority over elected politicians through so-called “monarchic networks” of loyal royalists strategically positioned inside the bureaucracy, including the highest echelons of the military.

Monarchic networks

Although the paper remains controversial, what is apparent is that Thaksin did move to sideline a number of top government officials, which in effect diluted the palace’s influence inside the bureaucracy and, as one palace source believes, aimed to consolidate his power in anticipation of the post-Bhumibol era.

For example, when Thaksin ordered in 2001 the sidelining of Kasem Watanachai and Palakorn Suwannarat, two well-known royalist bureaucratic officials, the King within hours appointed both of them to his Privy Council.

In 2002, two reporters for the Far Eastern Economic Review, including this correspondent, were threatened by Thaksin’s government with lese majeste charges and deportation for a report signaling tensions between his government and the palace. More significant, the premier regularly wrangled with the Privy Council over annual military reshuffles in which Thaksin bid to promote his loyalists to pivotal positions in the top brass.

In 2003, he controversially promoted his relatively unknown cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, to the post of army commander – the country’s most powerful military position – while elevating many other of his allies.

Tuesday’s coup significantly came against the backdrop of another hotly contested scheduled military reshuffle in which Thaksin had controversially vied to elevate a clutch of his pre-Cadet Class 10 loyalists to the pivotal 1st Army Division. That reshuffle list reportedly brought Thaksin into conflict with senior members of the top brass and the Privy Council, and his refusal to back down from the proposed personnel changes appears to have been a major factor behind the coup.

According to sources familiar with the matter, Thaksin had attempted to elevate Major-General Prin Suwanthat to commander of the 1st Army Division, which crucially is charged with overseeing security in Bangkok. Thaksin also reportedly pushed to promote Prin’s ally, Major-General Daopong Ratanasuwan, to take over the 1st Infantry. With assistant army commander Pornchai Kranlert in place, the reshuffle, if accomplished, would have given Thaksin an unbroken chain of command over crack troops responsible for Bangkok’s security.

Notably, without his allies in the top posts, Thaksin’s order from New York to impose a “severe state of emergency” and remove Sonthi from his position as army commander went unheeded.

Meanwhile, the military has promised to return power to the people as soon as possible, and judging by past royally orchestrated extra-constitutional interventions, it will honor that vow.

Thaksin’s ouster will pave the way for important democratic reforms, which under the military’s and monarchy’s watch will broadly aim to dilute the power of the executive branch, limit the power of large political parties, and strengthen the independent checking and balancing institutions that Thaksin stands accused of undermining.

With the likely legal dissolution of Thaksin’s powerful Thai Rak Thai political party, the nation now seems set to return to the wobbly coalition politics composed of several competitive middle-sized parties that characterized Thai democratic politics throughout the 1990s after the last coup in 1991 and the restoration of civilian rule after the bloody street protests of 1992.

More significant, perhaps, Thaksin’s departure from the political scene will allow the Privy Council and the palace to plan without worries for a dynastic transition that maintains the centrality of the monarchy in Thai society. Thai democratic history shows that the country often takes one step backward to take two steps ahead, and Tuesday’s royally backed coup is consistent with that tradition.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia editor.

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