Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is the return to military rule so bad for ASEAN?


After two decades of progress that brought an end to army-backed regimes in Indonesia and the Philippines, Thailand's return to military rule is a setback for democracy in Southeast Asia, observers say.

"Any sudden change of government in any ASEAN member government is no good for ASEAN as a whole," ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said.

"The secretary-general hopes the situation in Thailand will return to normal as soon as possible, because political stability in Thailand is very important to the stability of ASEAN," he said.

Analysts said the coup's impact would depend on how long the military holds onto power after ousting the billionaire businessman prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a bloodless putsch on Tuesday.

Mely Caballero-Anthony, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Singapore-based Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said the events in Thailand were a setback for the region.

"If you look at what's happening in ASEAN, one of the goals is to establish a more democratic Southeast Asia," she said.

"Anything that is considered as an unconstitutional takeover ... is a setback to democratization. That is bad news for Southeast Asia," she said.

But she also said there are indications the Thai military will pave the way for civilian rule sooner rather than later.

"In the next week or so, the situation could be more clear ... So it may not be as bad as people would think it is. This could be an interim setback," Caballero-Anthony said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said Jakarta "hopes that the democratic principles -- important elements in the ASEAN community that have been agreed [upon] together -- will remain enforced."

The head of the Indonesian parliamentary commission dealing with foreign affairs, Theo Sambuaga, said the coup was "a step back in the life of Thailand as a democratic country."

He called on his government and those of ASEAN member states "not to endorse or recognize the coup d'etat."

Thailand's military chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said on Wednesday he would hand power to an appointed prime minister within two weeks, and that democracy would be restored in a year.

ASEAN groups Thailand with nine other countries ranging from Vietnam and Laos and junta-ruled Myanmar to democracies including the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to Brunei, an absolute monarchy.

The group's former secretary-general, Rodolfo Severino, said the Thai coup "seems to be a step backward in the trend toward institutional processes" in the region.

"But we don't know what compelled [the military] to do it. It's hard to judge," he said.

"Each country has its own conditions and the Thais might feel that this is the only way to go," he said, adding that military rule "could be a short-lived kind of interregnum," he said.

Michael Backman, an Australian author and commentator on Southeast Asian politics and business, offered a different analysis.

"On the face of it, the coup looks bad for democracy," he said, noting allegations of vote-buying leveled against Thaksin.

But Backman said the coup "may be a corrective one rather than a corrosive one in terms of Thai democracy" because it was bloodless, with the army saying it does not intend to hold on to power and with coup leaders carefully linking themselves with the palace.

"If this is so, then the coup need not be bad for the image of Thailand or ASEAN. If the purpose of the coup is to install a true democrat, then perhaps Thailand will be enhanced by the experience," he said.

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