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Thai Coup in Hot Soup

Opposition to the military coup in Thailand is slowly increasing. The military, for its part, is toying with the idea of rewriting the democratic 1997 constitution.

Thai Coup in Hot Soup

Opposition to the military coup in Thailand is slowly increasing.The military, for its part, is toying with the idea of rewriting

the democratic 1997 constitution.


t is a staple dish you will not find in any recipe book on Thailand’s famous cuisine. And yet for most connoisseurs of modern Thai history a “coup in hot ’n spicy soup” is always an eagerly awaited meal.

A month after the Thai military took power by ousting the government of premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a “happy”, bloodless coup all indications are this favourite national delicacy is being cooked once again. Stirring the pot are a diverse range of actors from pro-democracy student activists and academics to taxi drivers and rural supporters of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. Discontent over imposition of martial law, the composition of the new “handpicked” national assembly and contradictory policies introduced by the new regime are providing the heat required to complete the cooking process.

All this is still happening on a slow, burning fire but once in a while the flames leap upward.

On October 1, for example, as soldiers posted on a key Bangkok thoroughfare following the coup watched with disbelief, one of the city’s ubiquitous taxis broke through their check post and rammed into a tank stationed there. Both sides of the taxi were sprayed with messages in black reading “the destroyers of the country”, and “martyr” was written on the taxi’s boot.

Later on talking to reporters Nuamthong Praiwan, the 60-year-old taxi driver, who broke three ribs in the high-speed crash and was put on a respirator said, “I will do it again if I get another chance”.

To understand the poignancy of this suicidal act of defiance one has to consider that displays of such extreme passion even on personal issues, let alone political ones, are very rare in Thailand. Sustaining physical injury deliberately for a cause is quite out of the question normally.

But these are not normal times in Thailand and that Nuamthong chose to do what he did is just one small indication of the simmering social volcano the country is sitting on – never mind the guns ’n roses images flashed around by the global media.

Even more ominously, in some districts of northern and north-eastern Thailand,

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006

strongholds of the Thai Rak Thai, there have been reports of several state-run schools “mysteriously” burning down. Nobody has claimed responsibility but the arson is believed to be the work of Thaksin’s supporters or simply those who have bad memories of the Thai military’s long history of misrule in the country’s past.

Protests Picking Up

Protests against the coup, though not as dramatic as ramming a taxi into a tank or schools on fire, have also been steadily picking up steam among the Thai intelligentsia.

In Bangkok student protestors demanding civil and political freedom recently burnt a copy of the new interim charter announced by the coup makers in place of the popularly framed 1997 constitution. The protest was the fifth by the group since the coup and defiantly staged outside the headquarters of the Thai Army. Under martial law, political assemblies of more than five people are banned in Thailand.

“The military dumped the constitution drafted by the people, so we are burning the charter issued undemocratically by them”, Chotisak On-soong from the Students Activities Information Resource group told Thai media. A dozen labour representatives also showed up later in black clothing to denounce the military.

The Council for Media Reform (CMR), a platform of academics, journalists and activists who fought for greater media freedom under the previous Thaksin Shinawatra regime, also held a protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument demanding restoration of the 1997 constitution. The CMR has also criticised the presence of military “monitors” at television stations and the resulting climate of fear among media personnel.

In the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, five scholars led by well known historian Nidhi Eawsriwong, publicly tore up an imitation of the interim charter announced by the military junta to symbolise their opposition to the coup makers.

A day after the protest, the website of the “Midnight University”, of which all the five academics were members, was shut down by the information and communications technology ministry. Their six-yearold website had become a platform for people who disagreed with the coup d’etat to exchange their opinions. (The Midnight University is a unique initiative by progressive Thai academics in Chiang Mai to take their lectures directly to interested members of the public.)

The National Security Council (NSC), as the military junta calls itself has asked for a ban on political web boards found to contain “provocative” messages. Other anti-coup websites have also been closed for containing criticisms of the new military regime.

There is obviously quite a diversity of motives among those opposed to the coup, though what binds all of them is a clear rejection of dictatorship in any form as a “solution” for the problems of a budding electoral democracy.

Taxi drivers, who number a couple of hundred thousand in Bangkok, have many reasons to be upset about the ouster of the Thaksin administration by the Thai military. Early on after getting elected to power in 2000 for example the Thaksin government cracked down hard on urban mafias that collected “protection” money from the capital city’s motorcycle taxi drivers, helping them increase their monthly income. For regular four-wheel taxi drivers it offered easy loans to buy their own vehicles and cushioned the impact of rising oil prices by making available cheaper substitutes like liquefied petroleum and natural gas.

All this together with the fact that Thaksin

– attempting to create an electoral base among the rural poor – poured money into health, education and employment schemes in Thailand’s impoverished north-eastern provinces, from where most taxi drivers hail, made him a hero among them. After all, none of the numerous regimes that held power in Thailand before Thaksin thought of taxi drivers as worth paying any attention to – let alone helping them.

Blow to Polity

Far from the world of ordinary taxi drivers, for the protesting academics in chiang Mai and student groups in Bangkok, the military coup, is a severe blow to the development of a mature democratic polity in the country. Many of them were strong critics of Thaksin, but now they feel the coup, justified by its backers in the name of preventing “social divisions” and “restoring democracy”, is a throwback to the dark old days from Thailand’s authoritarian past.

The new interim charter imposed by the military for instance does not provide at all for accountability of the new regime to any independent body let alone the general public. The coup makers have also unilaterally announced several decrees that have a big impact on the freedoms of the population.

Coup orders, like the ban on any political gathering with more than five participants, have become law without any debate and can be undone only by fresh legislation passed by a future parliament. The current interim charter and the various decrees issued by the military junta will remain in place for another year, at the end of which the coup makers have promised to hold national elections.

Charter of 1997

A few words are due here about the 1997 constitution, which was written with wide public participation and is easily Thailand’s most democratic charter to date (the country has had 17 constitutions in seven decades and is now preparing to write the 18th one). Among other progressive clauses it allowed the public to recall members of parliament, initiate impeachment of bureaucrats, ministers and even officials of the supreme court. It also set up a variety of institutions that were supposed to provide independent oversight of government functioning with substantial powers to make corrections wherever required.

There were some serious flaws with the 1997 constitution though, an important one being the disbarring of candidates without a university graduate degree from becoming members of parliament. In a country where a majority lives in the countryside but only a privileged few have the means of going to college that clause more than anything else gives away the deep bias that the “liberal” framers of the constitution had against ordinary “illiterate” Thai folk.

The disdain of the urban middle classes in Bangkok for rural Thai folk – whom they contemptuously call “village fools”

– comes from the highly elitist nature of Thai society under which only a handful of “educated” and “cultured” people are supposed to know what is “best for the country”. While Thaksin was rightly accused of trying to “buy” support from the poor, his conservative opponents – as a matter of traditional “right” – expect the masses to keep them in power without getting anything in return.

(The new government of retired general Surayud Chulanont and the 250-member national assembly handpicked by the coup

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 makers, for example, has hardly any representation from among rural Thais or urban workers and is instead packed with military men, bureaucrats and sections of Thai civil society who opposed the previous government.)

Another problem with the 1997 constitution was it never took into account the possibility of the emergence of a powerful political party with a charismatic leader who could dominate all democratic institutions. The rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2000 created precisely such a situation, unprecedented in the usually fragmented Thai political scenario.

Thaksin, with full domination of both the parliament and the senate, of course took full advantage of the situation by packing all supposedly independent institutions with his own people. Few things that Thaksin did were “unconstitutional” because those interpreting the text were very often under his government’s influence. Despite such loopholes and flaws the 1997 constitution, many activists in Thailand feel, can be the only basis for any new constitution that the military rulers may have in mind. The prospects of getting anything even like the old one however appear remote.

The coup makers have proposed a complicated plan of handpicking a Constitution Drafting Assembly that will come up with a new constitution within six months, hold public hearings and even a national referendum. The catch is that if the Thai people say “No”, the authority to decide the shape of Thailand’s 18th constitution reverts back – quite ominously – to the military junta.

Absence of Left

Irrespective of how the new Thai constitution finally looks like, it is becoming clear that a mere tinkering with the paperwork is not going to solve the problems of Thailand’s fledgling and highly unstable electoral democracy. One of the less discussed reasons for such fragility of democratic institutions is the complete absence of any left political party in the country.

Anyone surveying the spectrum of political parties in Thailand currently can easily see that every one of them is a right of centre front for one business lobby or the other. This has led to an obvious imbalance in the country’s electoral democracy, which stands on just one rightleg and falls down at the slightest political or social provocation.

A popular left party – even gardenvariety social democrats – openly taking up issues of the rural and urban poor, youth, women and workers will not only provide a much-needed counterweight to the forces of conservatism but also put Thai democracy on a much stronger foundation. Thailand can learn a lot from the South Korean struggle against authoritarian rule over the past three decades in this regard.

However anything “left” is still a sensitive subject in Thailand, which has a long history of anti-communism dating even prior to the US war on Vietnam, which obviously shifted policies further right.

Thailand’s first prime minister Pridi Banomyong, was ousted by the Thai military way back in the late 1930s for advocating an allegedly “communist” economic policy of land reforms and state planning.

Thailand did have a communist party, like many other countries in the region, but it turned into a low key armed insurgency only in the early 1950s after being banned and prevented from functioning openly. The threat of a “communist takeover” has been a bogey for the Thai military and conservatives to murder their opponents, suspend democratic rights and stay in power ever since.

In October 1976 a right wing coup killed hundreds of students accusing them of being “Marxists”, an event that ironically succeeded in pushing them into the arms of the underground Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) that till then had very limited presence among the urban intelligentsia. The CPT, however collapsed in the late 1970s under the weight of its own contradictions, a pro-China organisation operating from pro-Vietnam Laos.

Interestingly the lack of a functioning left party has not meant the complete absence of a left agenda or activities in the country’s politics either. For what Thailand got in the absence of an organised left is what can only be called a “dispersed” left.

‘Dispersed’ Left

There are former left activists, for example, in academia, in the media, among artists and in the dozens of NGOs that have mushroomed in the last two decades. Many of them are doing outstanding and very creative work to further the rights of ordinary Thai people and create greater democratic space.

There are left wingers in some of the mainstream political parties also, either there as pure opportunists or misguidedly trying to “manipulate” the system for public good. Several former student radicals for instance were among the advisers driving Thaksin’s populist schemes, whose success clearly shows the need for organisations that systematically take up issues of the poor. (The new military appointed government, in an interesting imitation of Thaksin’s much-criticised “populism” has announced free healthcare for Thais in place of the earlier of scheme providing medical treatment at just 30 baht (80 US cents) per visit.)

Of course there were left wing critics of Thaksin and his advisers too, many of whom took to the streets against his government’s authoritarian behaviour and alleged corruption. On many other occasions in the country’s past also the “dispersed left” has played a key role in fighting for democratic norms.

Even sections of Thailand’s traditional institutions take up left issues from time to time. After the 1997 Asian economic crisis that hit Thailand hard the Thai monarch for example promoted the concept of a “self-sufficient economy” and criticised growing consumerism and economic policies that desperately sought export-led growth without considering its social consequences.

In other words Thailand is faced with the amazing situation where there seem to be leftists of different shades all over the place but not a single left party to give electoral expression to their ideas and aims.

A new left party in Thailand (more than one is also welcome to add some diversity!) need not of course be a copy of anything that existed in the past but one based on a better reading of the social, economic and very importantly – cultural

– setting of Thailand. Maybe it could even be something like what the Buddha, the world’s best known social revolutionary before Jesus Christ, would have set up if he were around in Thailand (he is certainly missing from the local monasteries!).

As public opposition to the Thai military grows over the next year and its illegitimate new regime dissolves into a slow cooking soup, some of Thailand’s more visionary activists can work on making sure it turns – with the right ingredients and temperature – into a very tasty Thai dish.



Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006

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