Thailand military coup of September 19, 2006

Due to a lot of demand, here is a fairly quick & easy-reading article for foreigners to get a general grasp and assessment of what happened in Thailand as regards the military coup on September 19, 2006, without going into too much detail for most people.

To make a long story short:

An extremely wealthy man (billionaire), Thaksin Shinawatra (pronounced Taksin Shinawat), allegedly bought his way into power by buying votes from the masses of poor and lowly educated people in the northern provinces, and promoted populist policies to further cement support from the poor people. He created a political party from scratch just a short time before the 2000 elections, pulling in alleged quasi-mafia high rollers from other parties and other people on his money bandwagon. Once he had an outright majority in parliament, then he allegedly started eroding democracy itself with votes along party lines to erode the checks and balances system.

(It's also how democratically elected governments in other parts of the world whereby one party has an absolute majority in Parliament and a tight-fisted party leader have converted democracy into essentially a dictatorship. The most notorious example is democratically elected Hitler, who started to seize power in the German poverty after World War 1, then had his party change the laws in parliament... Democracy doesn't work well in some conditions.)

Thailand has a long history of democracy, going back to 1932, which is much longer than most countries in the world, so there is a long established culture for democracy. However, Thailand has switched back and forth between military rule, now 18 times since World War 2, with the last military government in 1991-1992. It was widely thought that was to be the last coup in history.

After much work, a new constitution was finished in 1997 which created a democratic system of checks and balances, including restrictions in regard to changing parties. However, the first elected government scheduled for the year 2000 was to put the final pieces into place, and nobody foresaw such a wealthy and autocratic magnate creating a new party at the last moments from people in other parties and coming to power.

Once his party was in power in parliament, their bloc vote allegedly started eroding the checks and balances system established by this practically virgin constitution.

The result has been a developing conflict and rift in society.

It is these two reasons:

1. the developing rift, and

2. the issue of checks and balances,

which led to the popular coup. A fair poll a few days after the coup revealed that a majority of Thais approved of the coup, but practically everyone expected full democracy to be restored within a year.

It was abundantly clear that the military ded not want to rule the country nor was there any one strongman asserting himself like this. Further, it would be entirely unacceptable in Thai society. Indeed, it is amazing that the military coup was even acceptable, given the extreme disdain of military governments for the last decade, and just shows how much the Thaksin government had gone too far in the eyes of many in the public.

Thailand is a fairly homogenous culture and the Thai people are very gentle. This is not a country with deep ethnic divisions, but is fairly homogeneous. Thai people value harmony and the avoidance of conflict more than most other cultures (which is often a frustration to businesspeople because problems are usually not solved quickly and efficiently by confrontation, but instead by cryptically pleasant manners, and the Thai language is replete with polite particles which are important in negotiations and successful management).

It is one language which spans about 1800 km north-south by about 800 km east-west, plus the Thai language extends into southern China and the Lao language (Laos) is about 70% the same both spoken and written and the culture very similar. (Other bordering countries are distinctly different.)

Violent street protests had been nearly nonexistent here since the previous military government of 1991, with scuffles limited to a few people at a time and usually involving hired security henchmen along the periphery. There were not significant divisions in Thai society, as Thai people tend to be live-and-let-live, relatively nonjudgemental and very tolerant people.

However, a new rift was developing along economic class, as the Thaksin camp increasingly relied on the poorest class of people as their political base against the establishment.

There is no backlash against foreigners. The Thai people are very hospitable to foreigners. This is very clear to people who travel around the world, and is part of what makes Thailand a favorite tourism destination, as well as a popular retirement place. Thais also assimilate foreign ideas and processes better than many other cultures, which is why Thailand is a relatively rich and modern country in the region.

Thailand is the only country in the region (besides China and Japan) which was never colonized, and indeed Chinese immigrants and others were welcomed and assimilated into the status quo rather than fought, unlike many other places in the region, and despite being surrounded by 2 British colonies and 2 French colonies for a long time.

The current prime minister got rich in telecommunications with a government concession (quasi monopoly), but allegedly may have made some of his riches by manipulation of stock in his own company and nominee shareholders (his maids, driver, etc.).

Thaksin is a very good businessman and manager, is very pro-western and US educated (PhD in political science in Texas)., but as the saying goes, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". He was accustomed to getting things his way in business by using his money. He seemed to many to come into politics with this same attitude. Many people feared he would succeed in eroding the checks & balances system as well as making more money from corruption to buy his way into power for the forseeable future, based on a divide and conquer strategy in Thai society.

Early in 2006, he sold his telecommunications company to a foreign entity (the Singapore state-supported telecoms firm Temasak). He made $ 2 billion, tax free, via various tricks. Further research has raised a lot of questions about a lot of intertwined and convoluted offshore companies and nominees ... and all this has further contributed to the crisis.

In fact, after the Prime Minister started to have serious revolts within his own party at that time.

Due to an emerging rift in his own party after the $2 billion sale, he called new quick elections, which some people saw as an attempt to get his chosen people back into the majority before the opposition could prepare. However, this short period also violated the law in various ways, but he had allegedly bought up the Election Commission top officials to look the other way (and several months later these officials subsequently went to prison for all this, about a month before the coup). The opposition boycotted the election, which was a drastic move. The king RARELY gets involved in things like this, but even the king stepped in by publicly asking the courts to obey the law and settle this matter. Only then did the courts rule the election unconstitutional, as it was, and then prosecute the officials.

The king exercises ceremonial power, more or less, but has earned high respect in Thai society because in his young years he worked very hard in the field to improve the country, and his good judgement and advice. The king spent decades traveling much of his time mixing with the ordinary population working on development of the country. He has been king for 60 years, but he's getting old now at over 80 years of age. There is nobody else in Thailand who has respect and moral leadership comparable to this king. Therefore, when the king at times diplomatically expresses concern about matters, officials listen.

Eventually, the quick election was abandoned on legal terms, and a new election was called for about half a year later.

Many months passed, and other regulations went into effect, such as the government implementing rules to put an end to nominee shareholders, which affected many other people.

Then, while Thaksin was in New York at the United Nations, on September 19, 2006, the coup occurred overnight.

It was a surprise to most people. However, myself being in the capital, Bangkok, it was hard to find anyone who was for the Prime Minister's form of democracy and against the coup. It seemed most people were relieved that the coup happened and hoped the rifts in society would heal. Nobody was happy about a military coup being the solution, and everyone expected it to be short-lived until democratic checks-and-balances could be re-established. It was clear that everyone, including the military, wanted real democracy restored at the soonest feasible date.

International reactions were condemning of the loss of democracy, though not supportive of the current Prime Minister Thaksin in particular. The western countries in general want to discourage military coups anywhere in the world with official statements supporting democracy (especially the US in view of Iraq's conversion to democracy). Initially, Kofi Annan was quoted as saying "Over the past decade or so they have established a solid democracy and institutions under the leadership of the king. And I'm sure they will be able to restore that institution and go back to a democratic system as soon as possible." Nobody wants to say anything which would encourage a military coup anywhere else in the world.


The Thai currency, the baht, dropped 1.3% relative to the dollar right after the coup, but rebounded back up in the second day. The initial drop was seen largely as a knee-jerk reaction in the world before further analysis. The baht is pretty much normal.


Moody's affirms Thailand's credit ratings with stable outlook

Moody's Investors Service has affirmed Thailand's ratings and stable outlook as the country's financial and external payments positions should be strong enough to withstand temporary disturbances caused by Tuesday's military coup.

Moody views the September 19 coup as mainly a domestic political development reflecting tensions between the Thaksin administration, the army and the Bangkok elites, rather than as a financial development.


In the first week after the coup, daily tourist arrival statistics quickly returned to normal. Indeed, the soldiers were usually happy to pose for photos with tourists.

No shots were fired during the coup, and it was completely bloodless.


Footnote:

Up until the time of the coup, the only significant terrorism in Thailand was the conflict in the 3 southernmost Muslim-majority provinces (out of 76 provinces) along the border with Malaysia, which had been ceded to Thailand by the British in 1909 when Malaysia was a British colony. (All other provinces are Buddhist majority, and Thailand is 94% Buddhist and tolerant of all religions.) To some degree, it's seen as an insurgency from northern Malaysia, and in fact Malay is the dominant language in much of those 3 provinces. However, there has always been a worry that the conflict could spread beyond these 3 provinces.

PM Thaksin had refused to negotiate with the insurgents / terrorists, and in fact there were well publicized human rights abuses against detainees during this time, which had stirred up much debate on Thaksin's policy on the southern violence, with many seeing it as an endless cycle of conflict escalation (which is consistent with the general environment in Thailand under Thaksin).

The leader of the coup, who became interim Prime Minister, was Sonthi Boonyaratglin (you can just call him Gen. Sonthi), is in fact a Muslim himself and had tried to lead dialogue with the Muslim troublemakers in order to defuse that conflict. It is notable that the region settled down considerably after Gen. Sonthi came to power.

Gen. Sonthi had often clashed with Thaksin over the issue of negotiations with the insurgents, including in the month preceding the coup. Indeed, a National Reconciliation Committee headed by a well respected former Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, had concluded with specific recommendations which PM Thaksin brushed aside, and instead continued with the policy of confrontation.

If you think this sounds like some other parts of the world, I agree. Someone must break the cycle of tit for tat.


See also my article on Thaksin Shinawatra and the September 2006 Military Coup which also briefly covers the history of Thaksin and contemporary Thai politics.




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