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Coup in Thailand

September 19th, 2006 . by Matt

thai coup
The Thai army takes control of the streets in Bangkok

The army in Thailand has seized power in a coup.

THE Thai army seized control of Bangkok today without a shot being fired, dismissed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, revoked the constitution and promised a swift return to democracy after political reforms.

A government spokesman at the UN with Mr Thaksin telephoned a Thai television station to announce a state of emergency in an apparent attempt to head off the coup.

He said the army could not succeed and “we’re in control”.

But tanks and troops took over Government House in Thailand’s first coup in 15 years and a coup spokesman said the army and police were in control of the capital and surrounding provinces.

Armoured vehicles and soldiers took up position on many street corners, but life in most of Bangkok continued much as usual with traffic moving through rain drenched streets and the airport operating normally.

The seizure would be temporary and power “returned to the people” soon, retired Lieutenant-General Prapart Sakuntanak said on all Thai television channels.

Foreign news channels, including CNN and the BBC, were cut off.

The army told all soldiers to report to base and banned unauthorised troop movements, suggesting the military leadership was worried that Thaksin loyalists in the armed forces might attempt a counter-coup.

Lt-Gen Prapart said the armed forces and police had set up a body to decide on political reforms, ousting billionaire telecoms tycoon Mr Thaksin in the midst of a political crisis stemming from accusations he had subverted Thailand’s 74-year-old democracy.

“Never in Thai history have the people been so divided,” Lt-Gen Prapart said.

“The majority of people had become suspicious of this administration, which is running the country through rampant corruption,” he said.

“Independent bodies have been interfered with so much they could not perform in line within the spirit of the constitution.”

Weerasak Kohsurat, a deputy minister in a previous government, said he believed royal adviser Sumate Tantivejakul would steer the political reform process.

Elections would be called when it was done and Mr Thaksin, Thailand’s longest serving elected prime minister, would be allowed to take part, he said.

Mr Thaksin himself was in New York to address the opening of the UN General Assembly and it was not immediately clear when he would be returning to Bangkok.

After mass street protests against him in Bangkok, Mr Thaksin, winner of two election landslides, called a snap poll in April, hoping his firm rural following would counter his metropolitan opponents.

However, opposition parties argued he had skewed neutral bodies such as the Election Commission in his favour and boycotted the poll. That rendered the election result invalid.

Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party was expected to win a re-run tentatively scheduled for late November, increasing pressure on his opponents in the military and the old establishment to resort to removing him by force.

“There is no other means to solve the political deadlock,” said a former senior official close to the top military brass.

“It’s been almost a year that the country has no democracy, no legitimate government to run the country.

“I’ve told foreign diplomats Thailand may need to take a step backward, if they think a coup will, in order to leap forward.”

The Thai baht, one of Asia’s strongest currencies this year, suffered its biggest fall in three years within hours of the coup.

But the Stock Exchange announced it would open as usual tomorrow, although it clearly expected investors to sell, saying it would halt trading if the main index fell more than 10 per cent.

News of the coup also helped lift the US dollar and US Treasuries as some investors ducked into safe havens.

In his television statement, Mr Thaksin ordered troops not to “move illegally” and told army commander-in-chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin to report to acting Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya.

He also ordered Armed Forces Supreme Commander Ruangroj Mahasaranond to implement the emergency order.

The transmission stopped after 10 minutes while he was still talking.

I wonder what will happen now. Are there any readers of Occidentalism that are knowledgeable about Thailand, and know the issues surrounding this?


3 Responses to “Coup in Thailand”

  1. comment number 1 by: Mechamorph

    I live in the region so I have a passing knowledge of Thai affairs. Thus I will attempt to hash out some of the issues surrounding this event.

    Essentially Prime Minister Thaksin has strong support in the Thai Northern Provinces among the rural folk who live there. These make up a huge chunk of the electorate and allow him to win just about any fair election held in the foreseeable future. Their love for him runs deep since Thaksin has always painted himself as a champion of the poor man; his own brand of micro-credit schemes are aimed at supposedly lifting the rural poor out of the poverty trap. He is also credited with helping Thailand recover from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 . With his own rags to riches story and as one of the richest men in Thailand, Thaksin’s clout is not inconsiderable even when he is not Prime Minster.

    Those who hate him however are the middle class and old money elite whose power base is in Bangkok. They allege corruption, abuse of power and the dismantling of democratic institutions among other things. They have staged mass rallies for months to try and oust his government. A failed general election and a new, theoretically more objective, election comission later, the Thai people are getting tired of the gridlock that has paralysed their political system. Thaksin dissolved parliment to hold the April General Election but an opposition boycott meant that less than the entire parliment was elected into office. Without a full sitting parliment, Thai law forbids the parliment to convene. Essentially the entire legislative branch is dead in the water and only the executive branch remains in power as a caretaker government under Thaksin.

    So what now? That’s the question on the mind of most Thais. The people behind the coup declare that they will return power to the people “soon” but as noted Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party is likely to win any election and return him to power. So the conspirators would essentially kick him out only to bring him back later, not exactly the smartest of moves. The rural North distrusts the moneyed elite of Bangkok. After all their poster boy and democratically elected prime minster was ousted by their machinations, which meant the disenfranchisement of the majority of Thais.

    The people who staged the coup have drawn their legitimacy from the revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej who has remained studiously neutral in politics thus far. They claim to act under this name and some of the movers and shakers of the coup are members of His Majesty’s Privy Council and among his most trusted advisors. If the King openly rejects Thaksin as his country’s head of government then Thaksin’s political career is over. However the King is respected exactly because he has always remained aloof from Thai politics and setting this new precedent may not be something he relishes.

    Throw in the fact that regardless of his moral character, Thaksin has been great for Thailand’s economy and a restive South trying to seceed, one can imagine that interesting times are headed for Thailand.

    At the very least skittish investors and tourists will leave Thailand alone for now and wait for developments. This will have a strong impact on a Thai economy already weakened by the political infighting. To remove Thaksin from power, they will either have to imprision him, drum up charges that will result in his ineligibility to run for office (tough to do when they’ve suspended the High Courts) or villify him to the very people who brought him into power in the first place and are likely to put his back. The conspirators will have to have a light step, any move seen to be too vindictive could spark off massive protests.

    ASEAN and friends
    Thailand belongs to the Association of South East Asian Nations, a regional bloc whose credo includes non-interference with the domestic affairs of their members. Myanmar is ruled by a Junta itself while Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have their own problems. Malaysia, Singapore, the Phillipines and Indonesia may condemn the coup but the likelihood is relatively small. This is especially so in the Philipines where President Gloria Arroyo is increasingly unpopular and staving off her own impeachment and in Malaysia where Prime Minster Abdullah Badawi is facing incessant attacks on his government by his predecessor, Tun (Dr) Mahatir Mohammad.

    Nightmare Scenario:
    The Northern Provinces refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the new central government. Thaksin returns to Thailand and holes up there with military units loyal to him flocking to the North. Neither side wants bloodshed so a stand-off occurs once again. As a democratically elected head of government, Thaksin calls for international support for his position and the West refuses to recognize the government in Bangkok.

    With the political apparatus completely ineffectual the three Muslim majority provinces in the South make their bid for succession. The Bangkok government has the choice of sending troops to quell the insurrection and leave themselves vulnerable or allow the South to descend into bloody violence before the declaration of a new state is made. The Southern Provinces may even involve Thailand’s neighbour Malaysia by applying to join its Federation. Culturally and ethically, the Southern provinces are closer to their cousins across the border than the mainly Buddhist Thais in Bangkok.

    The Northern Malaysian states will be sympathetic to the Thai South’s plight, especially those states where the fundamentalist Muslim Parti se-Islam de Malaysia (PAS) is strong. As current head of the Organization of Islamic Conferences, Malaysia will be put in quite a quandry. Its actions will set a rather nasty precedent for the rest of the Islamic world if it accepts but will appear unmoved by the plight of fellow Muslims if it does not. Furthermore the disruption of trade and goods from the Thai north will affect the Malaysian economy.

    So Malaysia’s options would be to accept the three Muslim provinces and create a diplomatic firestorm with whoever is in control of the rest of Thailand or have a poor and probably hostile state on its northern borders.

  2. comment number 2 by: Travolta

    Mechamorph,

    That nightmare scenario would be massively bad for everyone involved. I hope it doesn’t come to that! The mostly muslim states in the south of Thailand have been a problem for a while. Muslims putting their religion before their country and so on. It could turn into a major shit storm.

    Good post. keep it up.

  3. comment number 3 by: Matt

    Wow, Mechamorph. That was great. Thanks, man.