Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Thin Line of Military Rule

It didn't take long for protests to form and test the limits of marshal law. The golden object at center on the top of Democracy Monument is a representation of Thailand's constitution. Protesters are particularly angry that the 1997 constitution was thrown out. Bangkok - 2006.

In the days and weeks following September 19, 2006, when the military deposed controversial Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, there was a palpable sense of celebration in Bangkok.

Prior to the coup the country had been locked in a dangerous stalemate; many urban middle-class citizens despised the Prime Minister, yet he commanded enough support in the rural areas to remain in office.

Most analysts worried that the political divide, aggravated by Thaksin’s failure to either step-down or negotiate with the mounting opposition, would not just keep the country trapped in political limbo but would lead to serious and bloody clashes in the streets.

When General Sonthi Boonyaratglin’s tanks forced Thaksin from power many people celebrated because they felt that the stalemate had been broken without bloodshed, and were hopeful that the political crisis was over.

Thailand was in its coup d’etat honeymoon period.

Now that two months have passed, the optimistic honeymoon period is now giving way to a much more cynical mood.

The removal of the stalemate by military muscle has revealed itself to be a temporary solution. The “unprecedented divisions in society” that the Junta cited as their rationale for moving against the government may not be so easily healed.

Worse yet, the Junta’s foray into the political arena has created a host of new problems. In order to seize power the military trespassed upon democratic terrain, declared martial law, banned political gatherings, severely censored the media, and dissolved the popular 1997 constitution.

Removing Thaksin might have been popular at first, but once people realised that the “bloodless” coup d’etat had also delivered a serious blow to civil society and democracy, the political price of the coup increased dramatically.

The coup has also raised uncomfortable memories of military rule.

In the years 1971, 1973, and 1991 Thailand experienced violent struggles between supporters of civilian democratic rule and the military.

Those violent struggles have shaped Thailand’s political arena significantly. Clearly attempting to distance themselves from that history, one of the first statements made by the Junta (re-branded the Council for National Security), was that they would install an interim civilian government and hold elections within a year.

The appointment of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and his quasi-civilian government was seen as a good start, but one might argue that it is merely a token nod towards democracy.

The Junta has still reserved the right to dismiss the new government if they choose, so clearly power remains firmly in the military’s hands.

Anti-coup sentiment is already starting to appear on the streets of Bangkok.

The first act of direct defiance against martial law saw about 300 protesters gather around Democracy Monument to demand elections and the reinstatement of the 1997 constitution.

It was a cautious baby step as far as public dissent goes, but an important one nonetheless.

The huge anti-Thaksin protests that had rumbled around the capital before the coup might begin to trade in their old placards for anti-coup placards and return to the streets.

If this happens, the Junta will be faced with a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario. If they end martial law and allow protestors to gather, the numbers could swell into a dangerous challenge to the Junta’s authority.

If they quash the budding movement they will trigger historical comparisons to the brutal military regimes of the past.

There is one situation that the Junta could capitalize upon in order to retain public support. This revolves around their dramatic policy u-turn vis-a-vis the insurgency-racked Southern provinces.

Unlike Thaksin’s violent and wholly incompetent track record in the South, the Junta has pulled back the stick and extended an olive branch.

This should not come as a real surprise since General Sonthi was, before seizing power, the military commander in charge of pacifying the uprising.

He had also publicly quarrelled with Thaksin’s strategy but was bound by hierarchy to submit to the Prime Minister’s authority.

Now that Sonthi is in charge he might just be in a position to alter the course of the rebellion. This would be a monumental undertaking, however, since Thaksin’s antagonistic failures did not simply produce sympathy for the separatists, but has opened the door for real Islamic extremists, who may be intent on declaring jihad.

Despite the changing mood, the Junta might still survive their brief tenure with some popularity intact, but they are on very perilous ground.

If they can resuscitate the basic rights of the citizens, restore democracy, avoid negative historical comparisons with past military regimes, weather the challenges from civil society, and make positive changes in the increasingly bleak Southern rebellion, then they could earn a novel place in Thai political history.

But their chances for success are extremely low and there seem to be a number of pivotal forks in the road.

If, for example, the “unprecedented divisions in society” have not been healed after a year of military rule, would the Junta postpone elections? If such a delay did take place, or if any other hurdle scuttles the Junta’s exit plan, then the Junta’s reputation and governing term might quickly transform into a dictatorship.

As the Thai people are well-aware, such a dictatorship might have much darker prospects than Thaksin’s controversial tenure.

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