alternative reader no. 144
Thailand: All the King's Men
By Shawn W
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
© 2006 Bulatlat
Alipato Media Center
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