Coup season

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am


Examining the brittle bones of Thai democracy after an election that has yet again restored the Thaksin political machine to power, the lessons for a region wary of Thai-style instability are not immediately clear. Thailand, with its proud freedoms and traditionally light governance, its revered king and dollar-each-way diplomacy, does not make for easy comparisons with other troubled states.

But one lesson stands out: military coups beget military coups.

The actions of the generals who in 2006 ousted Thaksin Shinawatra - the most popular elected leader in Thai history - now stand in stark relief after the victory of his 'clone' sister on Sunday night. Given the considerable cost, what has been achieved by that coup, other than to weaken the very institutions the establishment was trying to protect?

The Democrats, the military and senior figures surrounding the monarchy have all been compromised in recent years. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 83 and in declining health, remains deeply revered, but ordinary Thais are now dealing with the fact that he won't be around forever. No one else carries his moral weight in times of crisis.

Many voters now fear they will see tanks in the streets once again should Yingluck Shinawatra secure her fugitive brother's return to Thailand, complete with criminal amnesty and restored wealth.

It should be remembered that there were very recent days in Thailand when the threat of the putsch did not pass for routine political activity. The 2006 coup was, in fact, an abnormality - the coup that Thailand was never again supposed to have. A great deal of thought had been given to strengthening the Thai democratic system after the coup of 1991 and the bloodshed of 1992. It was no easy task, given that Thailand has endured 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of its absolute monarchy of 1932.

The fact that Thailand endured the financial crisis of 1997-98 with a strengthened political system, rather than a coup, convinced many that the darker traditions had been left to history. There was a firm belief that the country was about to take the next step, converting years of high growth into a stable political system with elected governments.

Ironically, some of the leading establishment figures, who shed no tears when Thaksin was pushed into exile five years ago, played key roles in that effort.

To be sure, there are no saints on either side of the Thai story. Many believed a coup represented a lesser evil than the malfeasance and corruption, bloodshed and creeping authoritarianism that accompanied Thaksin's highly personalised populism. Some believe he is a threat to the future of the monarchy itself.

Outgoing Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, an arch nemesis of Thaksin when in opposition, told this newspaper back in March 2006 that a coup backed by a swift return to civilian rule would not be as damaging as four more years of a dictatorial Thaksin. It was then one of the first public mentions in recent years of a coup.

Five years on, it is a debate again simmering in the darker recesses of the establishment. Thailand's divisions are as stark as ever.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.