The Thai coup

The Sept. 19 military coup in Thailand bears more similarities to the January 2001 ouster of Joseph Estrada than to previous coups in Thai history.  This is a coup that displaced a democratically elected leader – a politician despised by the elite and the intelligentsia but adored by the urban and rural masses. The generals who overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra have vowed not to run the government themselves, but to turn it over to a civilian leadership.  They have justified the coup as a necessary move to protect the country’s fledgling democratic institutions against further abuse by the politician they have deposed.  They have seized power with the blessings of the country’s highest moral leader.

As in the Philippines, the Thai military intervened in the wake of a series of urban middle-class-led demonstrations calling for the resignation of the country’s top politician.  The Bangkok demonstrations ended only after Thaksin stepped down.  As it turned out, he did not intend to resign but only to take a leave until the situation cooled down. When he re-assumed his post as caretaker prime minister a few weeks later, the mass actions could not be revived.  Thai democrats have welcomed Thaksin’s ouster, but they wish that the military did not have to enter the picture.  This is the same sentiment that many of us who were at Edsa II felt when the military commanders led by Gen. Angelo Reyes suddenly joined the demonstrations at the Edsa Shrine to announce their withdrawal of support.

In 2001, the anti-Erap crowds instinctively applauded when the military broke the political impasse in their favor.  What this event signaled, however, was the dangerous return of the military as a power broker in the nation’s political life.  We only need to see how many ex-generals occupy crucial posts in government today to realize how much ground Ms Arroyo has ceded to the military in the last five years.  She has virtually made the top brass her partners in misrule.  For the military itself, the net result of this has been the rapid erosion of the organization’s professional ethos and widespread demoralization in the ranks of the officer corps.  It is this, more than anything else, that is fuelling resentment among the conscious young officers in the armed forces today.

This is where our similarities with Thailand end.  This neighboring country is no stranger to military intervention.  It has had more military regimes than civilian governments for a great part of its modern history.  But since 1991, Thailand has tried to make democracy work in its national life.  Over the last 15 years, the generals have opted to stay in the background, quietly taking orders from civilian authority even when they disagreed with the latter.  A case in point was when Thaksin ordered the deployment of thousands of troops to the Muslim provinces in southern Thailand to launch an all-out war against the Islamic separatists.  Sonthi, the army commander who led the recent coup (and who happens to be Muslim), counseled the use of dialogue instead.  But, on being given the orders, he set aside his personal feelings and dutifully complied with Thaksin’s aggressive policy against the insurgents.

It appears that Thai democracy was unprepared for the new breed of politicians that Thaksin represents.  Shrewd, manipulative, and moneyed – Thaksin used the skills he honed in the business world to enlarge his power base and to entrench himself politically by exploiting the weaknesses of the existing constitutional system.  He captured the electoral commission by filling it with his own people. He funded the creation of small parties to contest elections so as to divide the votes, bring down the required majority, and override the effects of opposition boycotts. He converted social services like health care into personalized patronage, and dispensed easy credit to rural farmers.  What he lacked in charisma, he tried to compensate for by generous dole-outs to the poor.  It is these techniques of power that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has borrowed from Thaksin.

Having corrupted and manipulated Thailand’s democratic processes to his own advantage, Thaksin was very sure of winning in the slated November parliamentary elections.  Even his enemies knew he would win again under the existing circumstances.  Thaksin’s supreme confidence betrays itself in a swagger that is uncommon to Thai politicians.  His demeanor is a stark contrast to the laid-back manner of the highly-revered Thai monarch.

I do not believe that the recent coup marks the end of the Thai experiment with democracy.  It may in fact signal the beginning of a Thai-style democracy characterized by ethical restraint.  From all indications, there seems little doubt that Gen. Sonthi was not acting on behalf of a military cabal bent on power, but under clear guidance from a King exercising his role as a moral fulcrum in the nation’s life.

In the way we normally understand democracy, the September coup is certainly a setback for Thai democracy.  But who are we to judge Thai politics?  Are we in the Philippines really better off being stuck with a president we resolutely distrust?  Do rigged elections, damaged institutions, corrupt politicians, and indifferent citizens constitute the essence of democracy?  The lesson from Thailand, as I see it, is this:  the only alternative to uniformed men seizing power for whatever reason is a virtuous and informed citizenry that fiercely defends its liberties and militantly refuses to be enslaved by corrupt leaders.

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