Sep 21, 2006

The Coup In Thailand

I was surprised when I read about the coup in Thailand, I thought it was a functioning democracy. Jim Moore's free world politics and policy has a local account of the coup:
About ten-thirty last night, just as I was getting in bed, a friend called and told me to turn on CNN. Sure enough, there were pictures of tanks outside the parliamentary buildings, a part of town not close to where I am but not exactly far, either. The distance between City Hall and Columbia University in Manhattan.

Because it was already nighttime in Bangkok, nothing seemed particularly different or strange. It was only when CNN and the BBC suddenly cut out that things began to feel a little weird. At some point in the middle of the night, the electricity went off.

This morning I got up as usual and went to yoga. The streets were quiet, which is not so strange since it was 6:45am, but the studio was locked. A few of the other students and I loitered in the lobby. Schools, banks, and most offices are closed today. One of the other students had seen tanks on her way to class.

Eventually the teacher showed up and, even though none of the other staff was there, smuggled us in the back way, which I guess means we launched our own coup of the yoga studio.

By the time we finished practicing this morning, the streets were still empty -- the intersection at Chitlom, which I usually have to take my life in my hands to cross, was so deserted I stood in the middle of the road for a few seconds just to savor the experience. At 9am the rush hour Sky Train was virtually empty, and people were quiet and looked glum.

Mostly it feels like a snow day: I'm home again in my pajamas, drinking tea and keeping an eye on the news online. Even the weather is unusual -- cool and raining. I live in a very ex-patty neighborhood, flanked by shopping malls, so I can't imagine that I would feel threatened unless the army tried to take over the Emporium Department Store. As far as I know, the shoe sale is still on, and good news -- the dollar is strong against the baht!

As for the political situation, it's still hard to know what's going on. Thaksin has been politically under siege for months, but there hasn't been a sense of violence or abject power grabbing. Well, maybe a little -- there was a staged attempt on Thaksin's life a few weeks ago, but even that seemed more like political theater than an actual threat.

I know that "coup d'etat" sounds dramatic and makes Thailand appear a banana republic (or, as my political scientist friend calls Thailand, a banana monarchy), but in fact Bangkok is a very firt-world city, and this coup seemingly a very white-collar maneuver. Sure, it's no surprise that a lot of the politicians are corrupt, and that there's dissent in the ranks, but the issues have been playing out more on the stock exchange and Op-Ed page than the streets -- that the military has taken control seems a bizarre response to the situation. It would be as if Enron middle-management had staged a coup.

The wild card, of course, is the king. The general who's taken over doesn't really want to retain power for himself and has declared his allegience to the king; even the tanks circling Government House are wearing yellow ribbons, the symbol of the monarchy.

But, the king isn't a substitute for a prime minister, and he isn't a replacement for Thaksin. A few months ago, when the dubiously-called elections were found to be dubiously-monitored and Thaksin the dubious winner, some of the opposition asked the king to intervene and appoint a prime minister. The king went on national television and scolded them: this is a democracy, he said, and a democracy holds elections. (To that point, Thaksin has been legitimately elected twice by an overwhelming majority.)

It seems to me with this coup that the general is now forcing the king's hand, making him intervene and perhaps appoint someone else. Or, declare his support for Thaksin, which may be in the best interest of democracy but does not seem to be in keeping with the king's personal taste.
Since the King has endorsed the coup and appointed the leader of the coup as the head of a new executive body. The coup leaders promised to appoint a new prime minister within two weeks. The people of Bangkok largely seem to have welcomed the coup.

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