Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why the Thai coup of 2006 failed

The Thai cat pictured in the photo has reached a point where she enjoys some perspective on life in the Kingdom. Likewise, observers of Thailand have at long last attained an inkling of perspective on the coup of 2006 and its aftermath.

That's no small accomplishment. Events of the past two years have included the toppling of an elected prime minister by military coup, rule by an interim government, the rewriting of the Thai constitution, followed in December '07 by elections, and presently the inauguration of a parliament led by a coalition government allied with the exiled former prime minister.

One astute commentator, veteran Thai politics observer Bangkok Pundit recently provided this insightful analysis into the "failure" of the coup:
How, in today's world, could a military-installed government institute significant reforms? . . . There are fundamental, intractable disputes on many issues, but whenever there is some sort of dispute it gets painted as disunity/lack of harmony and the future of the nation is in peril. There is no longer a small royalist, conservative elite who sets the agenda for the country and the sooner they learn to deal with this the better.

I think the problem for the Surayud government was the excessively long period between the coup and the election of 15 months for a caretaker government. This was needed to put key personnel in positions - we couldn't have had an August election as this would have allowed the new government to influence the Army C-in-C position, ensure a more favourable constitution was in place, increase the military budget, and to further demonise Thaksin. For the last one in particular, this failed and their failure to convince the population on the "evils" of Thaksin might unravel the "gains" made by the conservative, royalist elite. In fact, the longer they kept the Surayud government in power to demonise Thakin, the less it helped. This was not necessarily Surayud's fault though.
This is among the finest examples of how the first draft of the most recent epoch of Thai history is being written. I believe Bangkok Pundit's analysis here is right on the mark.

Yet,the next draft of this history will be written by the victors -- whoever they may be. The conservative royalist elite knows this as well as anyone. And they have lived through plenty of of history. So one question at the back of my mind is this: will the Thai elite concede that the 2006 coup was a failed experiment, and allow the mechanisms of democratic government to flourish once more? Or will they conclude from this historical episode that the coup of 2006 didn't go far enough? That their soft-authoritarian approach to reforming Thailand was doomed from the start?

I'm also concerned about another, related question. This emerging history of the times may well present a major "loss of face" to some powerful members of the elite. Especially if the apparent victors do not tread very carefully at this juncture, there could be another coup, perhaps violence.

If enduring democratic rule is restored to Thailand in short order, even those who vehemently opposed the coup of 2006 can agree that it was not a total failure. And such "success" -- if it comes -- will have been largely dependent on a special historical context; one with an approaching expiry date.

The whole context of the Thai political scene today is contingent on what happens within the House of Chakri. The King is aging and was recently unwell and uncertainty surrounds succession. Although "Thai Style Democracy" proponents argue the Thai coup serves a corrective to the excesses of democracy (a standpoint I dispute), this political "tradition" has surely run its course. It is running out of time.

The uniqueness of the epoch cannot be overstated. And this important fact leaves an opening for the democratic opposition to extend a face-saving olive branch to the elite. The only measure of the success of the 2006 coup ought to be the extent and speed by which democracy is restored in its aftermath. By this criteria, let us hope it will shortly be proven a successful coup; and if and when this happy day arrives, let it be said that were it not for an ancient and venerable king, the outcome would likely not have been so bright.

Winston Churchill's maxim is something for any new Thai government and its supporters to reflect upon:
In victory, magnanimity.
Photo: by Jotman. Though her new-found perspective is priceless, our Siamese cat sits above a precipice. She must watch her step.
Note: Second to last paragraph has been edited since original posting.

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