Thai king gives royal assent to coup
Chiefs of the army, navy and airforce met the king today to discuss the formation of interim government
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej has always found it hard to hide his distaste for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the billionaire businessman-turned-politician's overbearing and arrogant ways.
Now, it seems, the king has at least given quiet royal assent to a military coup that may end the political chaos and administrative dysfunction in which Thaksin's antics have mired the country for most of this year.
Thailand has been without an effective government or parliament since elections in April were declared invalid.
Thaksin called the elections to try to stem mounting public discontent in Bangkok over allegations of corruption by members of the prime minister's family.
Legal wrangling has stalled efforts to arrange new elections, which were again postponed last week.
Meanwhile Thaksin has stumbled along as caretaker prime minister and become deeply enmeshed in a confrontation with the military.
Soldiers and police loyal to army commander-in-chief Lt.-Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a Muslim known to be close to the king, seized control of key government buildings in the centre of Bangkok, the capital, on Tuesday.
It was announced on Thai television that a group calling itself the Council of Administrative Reform -- also translated in some messages as the Democratic Reform Council -- had taken control and that it is loyal to King Bhumibol as head of state.
Chiefs of the army, navy and airforce met the king today to discuss the formation of the interim government.
A senior official in the deposed government told Reuters news agency he believes one of the king's advisers, Sumate Tantivejakul, will head the reform commission and the interim government that will administer the country until new elections can be held.
On several occasions the king has publicly rebuked Thaksin or shown his displeasure with the prime minister. After Thaksin used police and officials to attack media that had been critical of him, the king gave the prime minister a public dressing down. King Bhumibol has shown displeasure at Thaksin's sometimes brutal handling of an insurrection by minority Muslims in Thailand's southern provinces and urged the prime minister to step down after April's farcical election.
The coup came while Thaksin was in New York attending the opening of the new session of the United Nations General Assembly and followed weeks of rumours, most of them put about by the prime minister and his allies, that the military was about to take power.
There have also been allegations that some army officers aimed to kill Thaksin with a car bomb in August, but the plot was discovered before the attempt was made.
After news of the coup reached New York Thaksin launched a futile counterattack by appearing on Thai television, declaring a state of emergency and warning the military not to take any illegal actions. Thaksin also attempted to fire Sonthi from command of the army and called on the Armed Forces Supreme Commander Ruangroj Mahasaranond to implement the emergency order.
Thaksin's broadcast was cut off after 10 minutes while he was still talking.
There have been 17 military coups in Thailand since the 1930s. The last coup was in 1991 and the country was returned to civilian rule the following year at the insistence of King Bhumibol after soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators killing many.
This was typical of the stabilizing role the much revered king has played in Thai politics during his 60 years on the throne.
Many Thais have been looking to the king to sort out the current political mess.
King Bhumibol has always been cautious and sparing in his political interventions, however. He has encouraged leaders of all political parties to find a way out of the impasse and has made some suggestions, but has refrained from exerting his considerable authority in a heavy-handed way.
It is therefore unlikely that the king was complicit in the coup. It is far more likely that the coup leaders received King Bhumibol's blessing -- if they have done so which is not yet clear -- only after pledging a swift and orderly return to democratic rule.
Thailand's military is highly political, but also riven by factions mostly based on groups of officers who served as cadets together.
Not least of Thaksin's problems with the military is that the political chaos has disrupted the round of new appointments that usually takes place at this time of year. Three cliques of former classmates are vying to provide the candidate to replace Lt.-Gen. Sonth, who was due to retire next year.
It is ironic that Sonthi has been an outspoken advocate of the Thai military strengthening its professional abilities and staying out of politics.
Part of Sonthi's campaign has been to criticize Thaksin, whom the general and others complain has interfered in military appointments to promote his own loyalists. In July Sonthi fell out conclusively with Thaksin when he re-assigned about 100 middle-ranking officers whom he believed had been promoted simply because of their loyalty to the prime minister.
The result has been that Thaksin has very few supporters in the military, the most notable being Maj.-Gen. Sanit Phrommas, commander of the Second Cavalry Division.
In New York Tuesday Thaksin's officials told reporters the coup could not succeed and that the prime minister would return home after addressing the UN general assembly.
In all likelihood Thaksin would want to get a firm idea of what kind of welcome awaits him before getting on a plane.
It is hard to imagine at this juncture a scenario in which Thaksin's political career continues, but Thai politics work to a highly individual cultural script with its own possibilities.
Thaksin's rise to wealth and power was unconventional in the extreme. He started life as a policeman, but one that believed strongly in the opportunities of the information age.
One such opportunity was to sell computers to his own police force. This was so profitable that Thaksin retired from the police force in 1987 and set up a software marketing company named after himself, the Shin Corp.
In 1990 the company hit the jackpot by getting a 20-year concession from the Thai telephone authorities to run cellular networks. Thaksin rapidly became Thailand wealthiest man and most powerful tycoon.
In 1994 he turned to politics and founded his own party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). In 2001 Thaksin's party swept to victory and the first majority government in the country's political history.
Voters were seduced by the desire that Thaksin could do for the national economy what he had done for his own company.
Thaksin's love affair with Thailand's urban voters didn't last long. The middle class quickly began to mistrust his arrogant and authoritarian tendencies.
But the poor, especially the rural poor, remained loyal not least because his personal fortune enabled him to spread the money that is usually exchanged for votes in the countryside. He won a second term in office last year.
What brought about his collapse was the sale in January of his company Shin Corp. to Singapore's state-owned Temasek Holdings for $1.9 billion US. To the outrage of many Thaksin's family found a way of not having to pay any tax on their profits.
Through most of February there were almost daily demonstrations in Bangkok calling for Thaksin's resignation. On Feb. 24 he tried to silence his critics by calling a snap election for April 2, but the main opposition parties boycotted the poll.
It was immediately evident the election could not produce a legal parliament and early in May the Constitutional Court ruled the election had been invalid. But it was also found the Election Commission had acted improperly and its members were fired.
It was only two weeks ago that a new Election Commission was appointed and plans for a new ballot in October had to be postponed until late November or, more likely, early next year.
© The Vancouver Sun 2006
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