On Sep. 19, there was a coup in Thailand, the nation's 12th coup since 1932 -- the last one was 15 years ago in 1991. Thailand announced in 1997 that it had created a modern Constitution, but it's now clear that this experiment in democracy has once again ended in failure.
At the beginning of this month, rumors spread from Bangkok that there could be a coup, even though army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin repeatedly denied it.
In reality, the military commanders under Sonthi had already become disgruntled with Thailand's political situation, and began to transfer forces loyal to Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra far away from Bangkok. Sonthi revealed his plan to take control of the government to former prime minister and the current president of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, to secure his support.
Thaksin had previously left to visit Finland to participate in the Asia-Europe Meeting, after which he visited Cuba and then the US where he delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly. During that time, Sonthi's coup plot began to emerge and he and the top military commanders engaged in negotiations moderated by Prem on Sept. 19. Sonthi said that Thaksin must leave the political stage in return for his support of the government.
In the end the negotiations failed, and Prem reported this to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. When Thaksin heard news of the breakdown in negotiations in New York, he relieved Sonthi and his generals of their command and announced a state of emergency.
Sonthi then started a mutiny by occupying the prime minister's office and other government offices and buildings. He announced the formation of a "Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy," put the entire country under martial law, abolished the Constitution, disbanded the two houses of parliament and the high court while allowing the Privy Council and other courts to remain.
He also rescinded Thaksin's state of emergency, but prohibited gatherings of more than five people.
Thaksin is the first Thai political leader in history whose party commands more than half the seats in parliament. He relied on his wealth and personal charisma to win majority support among people in rural areas.
He was resisted by the opposition party and urban voters because of accusations of corruption and abuse of power, and both sides became frozen in a political deadlock.
In parliamentary elections in April, Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party won 377 seats, but the Supreme Court refused to certify the election results. Thaskin was expected to win the next election as well. If that had happened, the opposition parties probably would have continued arguing the results and the protest movement would probably have continued.
The military was unable to suppress its anger in the face of this kind of democratic stalemate and it desperately wanted to intervene to protect the king and "save" democracy.
After 15 years of democratic experiments, an inequality had appeared in Thailand's political and social structure where the rich, many of them ethnic Chinese, controlled parliament, while the majority of Thais lived in poverty in rural areas. Those with ability entered the military to try to make a career there.
The military's long-term control over the regime is not an accident. If the country had a genuine civilian government, the regime would be controlled by rich Chinese families. Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Chinese families have controlled political power in stark contrast to the military, which is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Thais.
The political and social imbalances have distorted Thailand's process of democratization. A popular movement put democratic forces in power in 1992, and led to the creation of a new Constitution in 1997.
The fierce infighting between political parties, however, resulted in the defeat of both the constitution and the democratic parties and returned Thailand to military rule.
Sonthi and the military junta have said that they will return power to the people in one year's time. Thaskin is in exile in England, while his Thai Rak Thai party could soon collapse.This would probably lead to a major reshuffle of political parties, while the junta will hand power to a "friendly" party.
Thailand is falling back into a familiar cycle: military coup, scrapping the Constitution, forming a new parliament, having a crisis, and then another military coup. In any case, if relations between the parliament and military are not changed, then Thailand's future road to democratization will be fraught.
The military will always be the supervisor of Thailand's form of "democracy" -- whenever there is a political deadlock, it can be expected to step back in.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Tamkang University.
Translated by Marc Langer
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