The military coup against Thailand’s increasingly unpopular prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday night is being widely greeted with a sigh of relief. But as a military coup, it has also cast Thailand back into political uncertainty, and again undermined Thailand’s democratic solutions to political problems.

There is little doubt that Thaksin had tried to subvert Thailand’s democratic process and appeared intent on hanging on to power. Despite elections being held in February 2005, Thaksin called fresh elections in April this year in an attempt to counter mounting corruption claims.

The opposition parties said the unexpected elections did not allow them enough time to properly prepare. In Central, Northern and North-East regions, candidates from Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party ran unopposed, with the party winning 460 of 500 seats. However, Thaksin’s party received fewer votes than the number of abstention votes in 28 of 36 Bangkok constituencies. Thailand’s Constitutional Court later invalidated the lower house election results.

Criticism of Thaksin had been mounting following being voted back into office in 2005 with 374 of 500 seats for an unprecedented second term.

There have also been deep concerns over Thaksin?s suppression of criticism, skirting the law in a fight against crime, and his poor handling of Muslim issues in the south, which since the beginning of 2004 has left more than 1200 people dead, inflaming separatist sentiments. This has all been reflected in his personalization of power.

As a result of his corruption and mishandling the Muslim issue, tension had been rising between the cultivated ‘loyalist’ army officers and those critical of him. Administration had almost come to a standstill, there was much coup speculation and some believe that the recent bombings in southern Thailand were intended to discredit Thaksin’s opponents.

While Thaksin was at the United Nations in New York, just after 9 pm on Tuesday night, critical army officers and the chief of police launched their coup.

Army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, said the coup was necessary to overcome ‘unprecedented vision within the country’, and promised to return the country to democratic rule as soon as possible.

While the coup is being led by a self-styled ‘Democratic Reform Council’, it has scrapped the country’s pro-democracy 1997 ‘people’s’
constitution and the Constitutional Court, as well as the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Cabinet. Fresh elections planned for November have now been abandoned, and martial law has been declared.

It may be that the Thai military has sincerely acted against a corrupt and increasingly undemocratic prime minister. However, given fresh elections were scheduled for November, it appears at least as likely that senior officers have also acted to preserve their own interests. The military is still involved in legal and illegal business in Thailand, as well as being behind much of formally democratic politics.

With Tuesday’s events, Thailand has now had 18 coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and has spent 46 of the past 74 years under military rule. Despite what looked like a distinct shift towards democratic process after the last military government fell in 1991, its deepening democratic trend has again been subverted.

It may be that Thaksin had himself subverted Thailand’s democratic process, but the military again taking the politics into its own hands shows that it is less than committed to civil political processes.

Worse, there are many opposition politicians and influential civilians in Thailand who now support this further abrogation of civilian authority. Thailand will probably again have elections, perhaps in 2007. But its commitment to civil authority and hence to accountable government remains shallow.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is in the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University. He is author of South-East Asia: A Political Profile, 2nd edition, Oxford, 2005.

Peter Fray

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