New Mandala’s stepping stones to a coup

Events in Thailand this week have concentrated minds on the possibility of a coup, once again, unseating a democratically-elected government.  With the sieges of Suvarnaphumi and Don Muang airports continuing, the judiciary readying its claws to dismember the institutional basis of the government, and the Prime Minister dashing around the country unable to use his capital, it looks like the country is not that far from opening a proverbial can of worms.  Speculation that a coup, in one guise or another, is about to take place has been building all week.  Such an effort will, without question, be greeted by a chorus of disbelieving comdemnation from the outside world.  Their concern at the overthrow of the Somchai Wongsawat government will only be tempered if a new regime manages to get the airports back open.  If you read elements of the Australian media you would be under the impression that getting Aussies home is all that matters.  As we have argued elsewhere there is, of course, much more at stake.

It is a bizarre situation and one where a coup, of some sort, seems almost inevitable.

How did it come to this? Here are some of New Mandala‘s stepping stones to the end of the Somchai government.

The 2007 constitutional referendum

19 August 2007: General Sonthi, after casting his vote, refused to rule out future military action against the constitution. As we know, according to the tenets of sufficiency democracy, voters’ decisions are only valued when, as in the case of this referendum, they have no meaningful choice.

20 August 2007: So, of the 45 million Thais registered to vote, 14.7 million have endorsed the proposed constitution. It is a victory of sorts (and key no vote campaigners have accepted it), but not an impressive one. The international reaction will be interesting to watch.

3 September 2007: The explicit request of the military government was that Thai voters endorse a constitution; but the implicit request was that they endorse the future abrogation of that very document if it delivers a government unpalatable to those who wield the power to overthrow it. We can see the ideological groundwork for this being laid already with the usual tired claims about vote buying in relation to the substantial no vote in the northeast and the north. And these claims come from a government that spared little in terms of incentives and expenses for villagers mobilised as part of the yes vote campaign.

The 2007 general election campaign

10 September 2007: Some members of the ruling regime in Thailand have reacted with predicable nationalist outrage to a European Union request to send observers to the forthcoming general election. Why such a defensive response? I don’t think it is because the junta holds out some hope of ballot-box manipulation. Quite the opposite. What the current regime fears most is that the Thai electoral process could be internationally recognised as being relatively clean. The “sufficiency democracy” paradigm that they promote is based on the view that the electoral process is so compromised by money politics that it can be cast aside when it delivers an unpalatable result. Slandering the electoral process is the ideological bread and butter of the coup-endorsing Thai elite. With European Observers on the ground, the elite’s ongoing attempts to discredit electoral democracy will be all the more difficult.

The election

23 December 2007: The central question for Thailand’s democracy is this: will the royalist-military elite that staged the September 2006 coup be willing to accept the election of Thaksin’s proxy party? Finding themselves back at square one after 15 months will be a bitter pill to swallow. Military action against the election result seems highly unlikely, though it cannot be ruled out. More likely is a concerted judicial attack on the elected government. This may take the form of a series of challenges to constituency results. The current military regime has worked hard to keep the spectre of electoral irregularity and vote buying alive and they may waste no time in arguing, as they did in relation to the Thaksin government, that the People Power victory was bought from an ill-informed and easily manipulated electorate.

A coup by stealth?

1 January 2008: Now the issuing of “red cards” to the successful People Power Party has started in earnest with speculation that up to 60 candidates may be disqualified … As expected the common charge against disqualified candidates is the tired old charge of vote buying. This legal manoeuvring is just so predictable. … Just how far the powers that be are willing to go in their current coup by stealth remains to be seen. They will do everything they can to muddy the electoral waters.

The PAD return

7 April 2008: For some so-called pro-democracy advocates, constitutional reform by a democratically elected government seems to be more alarming than the complete destruction of a constitution by military force. The outrage at the proposed amendment of Section 237 of the 2007 Constitution is motivated by anything but democratic principles. Section 237 allows the Constitutional Court to dissolve a political party if one of its executives is found guilty of electoral irregularity (or failing to act to prevent such an irregularity).

28 May 2008: Whoever is launching the attacks on the rallies held by the People’s Alliance for (Sufficiency) Democracy in Bangkok is doing the PA(S)D a big favour. With their cause looking increasingly tawdry and discredited, the most the PA(S)D can hope for is that their credibility will be boosted by the impression that they are standing firm against the dark forces of violence and dissension.

A ham fisted government

15 July 2008: Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must dread reading the newspaper each morning. Each day seems to bring a new crisis or an escalation in one of his many existing problems. On Tuesday last week, his deputy party leader and former speaker was found guilty of vote buying. On Wednesday, the health minister was disqualified for not declaring his wife’s assets, and on Thursday the foreign minister resigned after a nationalist backlash against the Government’s decision to support a Cambodian bid for World Heritage listing for an ancient Hindu temple. …  Samak is a rough and tumble politician with a highly-dubious political history. His government has been ham-fisted, arrogant and ill-informed on a number of issues. Street protests, no-confidence motions, court cases and media condemnation are all legitimate in a democratic system. Attacks on the Government have produced some high profile casualties and caused some significant backdowns. But Samak’s Government is less than six months old. Opposition forces calling for Samak to hand over power (presumably to the Democrats) are overplaying their hand.

Royal silence

3 September 2008: The recent escalation of protest action by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has taken Thailand to the brink of civil breakdown. Swathed in King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s royal yellow, the protesters have forced the government of Samak Sundaravej to declare a state of emergency. … Today the king should not wait for more ordinary Thais to suffer the consequences of brinksmanship. The People’s Alliance for Democracy is goading the Samak government to over-react. With the real possibility of more bloodshed in Bangkok in the days ahead, the king’s silence is baffling. His lifelong reservoir of charisma is no good to his people if he does not call off the anti-democratic provocateurs acting in his name.

The cooking show coup

9 September 2008: Hosting a TV cooking show = GUILTY! Staging a coup and tearing up a constitution = NO PROBLEM!

Blood over ballots

14 October 2008: If you do the numbers it is clear that the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leadership has chosen bloodshed over ballots. The PAD has abandoned electoral politics. With no coherent or credible political platform their only hope is that sufficient blood will be spilt to prompt a military or royal strike against Thailand’s democratically elected government.

The “royal institution”

30 October 2008: In the wake of the October 7 violence in Bangkok, the queen made her support for the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) abundantly clear. As a result of the queen’s actions, the “royal institution” was publically aligned with an opposition group that had clashed with police, besieged parliament and openly courted a military coup. This public alignment took place when the attention of the national and international media was focussed on the events in Bangkok. … The queen let the genie of a politically engaged royalty out of the bottle. The powers that be are desperately trying to put it back in.

The final battle

24 November 2008: After today’s “final showdown” things are as unresolved as ever in Thai politics. Both sides can claim victory. The PAD succeeded in delaying the joint meeting between MPs and Senators and, although they showed their now familiar disregard for the rule of law, their behaviour was more restrained than many had expected. The government can claim credit for avoiding a confrontation over the parliamentary meeting and for the restrained police handling of the PAD protestors. The pro-government red-shirts wisely kept their distance. Hopefully, if the night ends peacefully, overblown PAD rhetoric will be the only casualty.

25 November 2008: The relative peace of 24 November seemed too good to be true. The PAD have now reverted to their regular strategy of extreme provocation. … ”Bangkok International Airport has now been closed by Fascist thugs from the anti-government PAD.”

27 November 2008: The crisis of 1992 produced a powerful image of the king as an apolitical and independent force stepping in to resolve a political crisis. In 2008 this may be much harder to achieve. The royal brand has been thoroughly caught up in the political turmoil and it may prove very difficult to extract it.

About Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly