No Democracy Yet in Thailand

In mid-September 2006, a bloodless “democratic coup” swept through Thailand, the region’s darling of democracy. Military leaders justified their actions as a purely temporary means to wrest the country back from a power-hungry tycoon and restore the functions of government.

Last month, the military government officially lifted martial law in Bangkok, the nation’s capital. Restrictions, however, remain along the borders and in the strongholds of the former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. Five months after the coup, democracy is still not around the corner. Nor has Thaksin, the man the military sought to marginalize, disappeared entirely from the scene. The restoration of Thai democracy depends on the military and monarch’s willingness to cede power to true civilian leaders. As time passes there are more and more reasons to doubt the junta’s true intentions and their ability to improve Thailand’s government.

The Coup

The military coup was in many ways unexpected. From the outside, Thailand appeared to have the potential to become a healthy and stable democracy. The country had not experienced a coup since 1991. Its progressive constitution, adopted in 1997, garnered praise both at home and abroad. Political stability seemed to be assured by the way Thailand weathered the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most popular politicians the country had ever seen, built his base of support by providing cheaper healthcare and financial assistance to the often-marginalized rural population. Opponents, however, grew increasingly angry as he funneled money to the countryside. Those in Bangkok who saw him as nothing more than a corrupt populist labeled his policies “vote-buying.” His critics had a point. Thaksin was also consolidating power and using his influence to solidify his own finances. His mishandling of the Muslim insurgency in the south was a fiasco with no foreseeable end. He was attempting to gain a foothold in the courts, the media, and most recently the military. As a result, Thailand’s democracy was becoming increasingly authoritarian.

It was not only the pervasive corruption that tarnished Thailand’s democratic record. The revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej weakened Thailand’s democrats and limited their ability to represent their constituents. This powerful and respected monarch, who lurked behind democratic institutions, did little to ensure their accountability. In a review of Paul M. Handley’s The King Never Smiles, a banned book in Thailand, Ian Buruma suggests that the “King remains the ultimate arbiter of power” and citizens expect “that in a crisis it is the King, and not his government, who comes to the people’s rescue.” Thaksin did not have a good relationship with the King, so his reign was arguably doomed from the beginning.

Tensions finally boiled over last year. Thaksin’s family unwisely sold a major stake in a telecommunications firm, tax-free, to a company in Singapore. This unleashed the force of “people power” in the nation’s capital. Energized and united, Thaksin’s opponents wanted to force him from office even though they had no hope of winning an election.

Relying on “people power” because a group doesn’t have the votes on election day is not the loyal opposition needed in a successful democracy. With all his faults – and there were many – Thaksin was still a democratically elected leader whose party was nearly assured of winning the next election. The urban and wealthy constituents needed to debate the policies in the political arena of a stable democratic system.

Instead, the massive street protests, because they didn’t force Thaksin from power, only paved the way for the army. The military might of tanks and weapons enabled the junta to grasp control. Even though it was a peaceful military takeover, the event set a dangerous precedent in a country that was formerly notorious for coups.

Immediately following the coup, the United States and Europe issued strong rebukes calling for the speedy restoration of democracy. The United States suspended $24 million in military aid, and the military struggled to obtain international approval for its actions. Despite international condemnation, however, sustained criticism has been muted, and Thailand has avoided crippling isolation.

Thaksin’s Influence

There was a strong expectation that the new military leadership in Thailand would file corruption charges against Thaksin and his cronies. But concrete accusations have not been forthcoming (though are expected in the near future). Thaksin has assured the international community that he does not intend to reenter politics or regain power. But his stops in Asia have raised fears that he is plotting a return.

Thaksin’s travels have in turn complicated Thailand’s relations with its neighbors. In January 2007, for instance, Singapore welcomed Thaksin to the country in a move that suggested support for the former Thai leader. Bangkok swiftly severed high-level diplomatic contacts with its neighbor and former ally.

The coup not only transformed relations but also damaged democracy throughout southeast Asia by lending greater legitimacy to other authoritarian regimes. There has been less of an incentive for countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to open their societies and respect civil liberties. If democracy cannot function in Thailand, other countries are not likely to be eager to embrace similar political reforms.

Life After the Coup

While some claim that the imposition of martial law has been virtually unnoticeable to the majority of citizens and there has been no overt repression, other problems have continued unabated. Freedom House, an organization researching and measuring political freedom throughout the world, acknowledged the regression of democratic freedoms under Thaksin. But the organization argues in its most recent ratings that despite Thaksin’s style of governance, “Thailand had represented an important gain for democracy in Asia, and the coup caused its political rights rating to decline to the lowest possible for the survey.”

In addition to its two-month delay in lifting martial law (the government was waiting for royal approval), the military has resorted to various means to hold on to power. The military maintains control over who will draft the new constitution, which possibly ensures its retention of influence). It eliminated the judiciary’s independence and censors the media. Coverage of Thaksin has been banned in the local press, and an interview he gave to CNN in January was blocked.

On the economic front, the interim government’s handling and bungling of the economy is exemplified by two decisions. In December, the stock market experienced a sharp15% drop when the government unwisely tried to impose capital controls to curb currency speculation. More recently, the stock market fell again when leaders limited foreign ownership of companies in Thailand invoking nationalism as a justification. These measures and the lack of stability that a coup represents have caused the economy to falter and hurt the government’s credibility in the eyes of international investors. Still, Thailand’s economy is expected to have a solid year of growth in 2007 despite some forecasts that rates will slow.

In an attempt to appeal to Thaksin’s base and continue his successes economically, the government is repackaging populist economic interventions. It is shifting away from Thaksinomics to a “sufficiency economy” as advocated and created by the King. Government actions to carry out the plan, however, have been met with resistance and encouraged rumors of internal rifts in the regime. Both the finance minister, Pridiyathorn Devakula, and Somkid Jatusripitak (a former Thaksin official) have resigned in the last couple of weeks, and the government recently announced the lifting of capital controls.

The interim government is fulfilling its promise, however, to employ a less confrontational approach to manage the insurgency. Nevertheless, the softer touch has yet to achieve its desired results. On February 18, 28 bombs ripped through southern Thailand following a string of beheadings, arson attacks, and the New Year’s bombings in Bangkok that may or may not have been detonated by insurgents. The escalation of violence and lack of forward progress have caused impatience and frustration to mount, and the coup’s popularity is receding accordingly. Last week, a poll conducted by Bangkok’s Assumption University measured Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s popularity falling from 70% to 35% in November.

What Should Bangkok Do?

Now the military junta has to move the country steadily forward toward a new constitution and an enhanced democratic government. The goals – prevent corruption and build a democracy with adequate checks and balances – must be accomplished.

The longer it takes to build an unbreakable democracy and relegate Thaksin to the eternal sidelines of Thai politics, the less likely the government will achieve this result. The irony of the situation is that the military-supported government’s actions to suppress Thaksin’s impact – damaging relations with Singapore and censoring coverage – end up boosting his popularity. Only concrete and visible movement towards democratic institutions and equitable economic policies will prevent Thaksin from returning to power.

The hope is that the generals will allow democracy to be restored without manipulation and interruption. The fear is that the cycle of coups will be perpetuated and democracy will never be realized while the monarch and military retain their powers. A “democratic coup” is easier said than done.

David Kampf is a political and economic researcher primarily based in New York and Kigali, Rwanda, and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).