Tuesday, January 13, 2009

'A Corrective Coup' in Thailand - Surin

BRUSSELS (IPS Asia-Pacific) - The Sep 19, 2006 coup in Thailand shouldn't be looked at by the international community as a loss of democracy but, rather, as a 'corrective' measure to prevent autocracy from completely taking over.

This, in a nutshell, is former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan's analysis of recent political upheavals that plagued his country. Speaking at an 'Asian Voices' seminar in Brussels, Belgium, the director of Thailand's Democratic Party believed that democracy did not die in the coup led by army general Sonthi Boonyaratklin, but was, in fact, saved just in time.

"Thailand is a young democracy facing tremendous pressure from competition with the outside world. We have been misled for the past five years. On the outside, it looked like that we have lost the democratic process. But if you were in Thailand, you would appreciate the fact that it was a necessary coup, a corrective coup," said Surin, who is now also a member of the National Legislative Assembly installed by the military-led government.

Explaining that he is neither defending nor rationalising the coup, Surin outlined several reasons that could have led to such drastic change in government in this South-east Asian country.

Surin said that "there was little semblance of democracy in the Thai political system" in the last five years under ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's term. "It was (an) extremely autocratic (government). Civil liberties were contained, if not done away with. The media had been intimidated if they did not toe the line. The bureaucracy was completely under (his) control and was highly politicised. The system of checks and balances was gone. The constitutional process was manipulated. Corruption was widespread," he said.

He added that, being a young democracy, the nation was led to believe the promises of what many thought of as a strong and forthright leadership, especially against the backdrop of frequent changes in government and prime ministers in the past.

"Any emerging democracy comes under tremendous pressure of globalisation and intense competition and, naturally, its people will be very much attracted to a very strong leadership that promises to protect its constituents from the pressures of globalisation and give the nation a vision," Surin said.

Once ruled by a succession of kings, Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The country was plagued by a series of coup d'etats up until the early 1990s when democratic processes were brought back. In 2001, telecommunications magnate Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister, and was reelected in 2005.

In recent weeks, Thaksin has been giving interviews to foreign journalists. In the interview with 'Time' magazine in its Feb. 12 issue, he said that while many Thais have accepted the coup, "They are watching what (the new rulers) are doing and when they will return democracy to the people."

Surin said that the Thaksin government initially caught the attention of the people for its "strong dose of nationalism". Another component it had, he added, was populism. "All sorts of populist programmes have been thought up. Easy credit, free health care -- all sorts of credit  schemes were given the villages. For the first time, the people, who used to be very marginalised in the countryside, were brought centre-side in Thai politics," said Surin.

The popularity of populism, he added, holds true in other countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, even in Mexico and parts of central Asia.

"A third element is corruption. You cannot propel populism and sustain the interest and support of the people without some fund to sustain these programmes," he continued.

To be able to push these elements forward, according to Surin, a fourth component is needed -- authoritarianism.  "You have to suppress all criticism and make sure you have enough supporters in the parliament. (The Thaksin government) used money in order to win seats in parliament," he said.

Surin believed that the past government was given too much power, what with 377 seats out of 500 being won by Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party. The 1997 Constitution, he noted, stipulated that 200 votes out of 500 are needed to file a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister.

The sale of the Thaksin family-owned Shin Corp to Singapore-based investment company, Temasek Holdings, for 3 billion U.S. dollars that led to tax evasion charges against the former prime minister was the straw that broke the camel's back, said Surin.

The former deputy foreign minister observed that about 90 percent of Thais approved of the coup for it gave them another chance to bring back the democratic system undermined by the Thaksin government.

Citing the Thais' loyalty to their King, Surin said they prefer the monarchy's self-sufficiency economy, which calls for living within one's means and one that is characterised as "ethical, quiet, persuasive, and not too materialistic".

"Thaksin's leadership style, on the other hand, was seen by many as bombastic, aggressive, confrontational, noisy and acquisitive. (So) the people chose the kind of leadership they have been used to for the last six decades," he noted, referring to the rule of the world's longest reigning monarch.

Thailand's tumultuous political history showed that the King was always called to "defuse the conflict every single time", Surin explained, but he also said that society needs to have a stable political system so that it does not need to turn to others to address political problems.

Touching briefly on the insurgency problem in Thailand's South, Surin is convinced that the thousands of killings in the mostly Muslim provinces are a consequence of the previous government's leadership style.

"It's all a reflection of what is happening in Bangkok. There is lack of respect for the rule of law, intolerance, and the centralisation of power. It's the CEO approach -- 'Listen to me, I know best how to run the country'. The people who were appointed to go down to the Deep South were those who knew nothing about the problems, the sensitivities and the diversity in those provinces," he said.

Surin says he is hopeful that the junta would be true to its promise to vacate power in a year's time, citing the King's iteration on the eve of his birthday on Dec. 5 that there would be a new government by September 2007. He also says that the undercurrents of discontent in the wake of the coup among people opposed to the junta and military rule, and the pressure this puts on the coup, leaders are a good sign.

"We are committed to go back on the road to democracy after having been led astray for the last five years. It is not going to be easy. We are working on the new Constitution (after the 1997 Constitution was suspended by the military government).We just want your understanding," he pointed out.


Posted by Captain Planet


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