News reports indicate that there were a number of reasons why Thailand’s military decided to overthrow Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last week, but the most interesting among them was a disappointment with his strategy toward the Muslim insurgency in the south. From The Australian:
THE Royal Thai Army will adopt new tactics against a militant Islamic uprising, following the coup that sent Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister, into exile in London last week.
According to sources briefed by the army high command, Mr Thaksin’s bungled response to the insurgency in southern Thailand, which has claimed 1700 lives in two years, was a critical factor in the generals’ decision to get rid of him.
Military intelligence officers intend to negotiate with separatists and to use psychological warfare to isolate the most violent extremists, in contrast to Mr Thaksin’s heavy-handed methods and harsh rhetoric….
When Mr Thaksin, a former policeman who made his fortune from telecommunications, came to power in 2001, he broke with the old order. He put police cronies in charge of the southern border and shut down two intelligence clearing centres.
Soon, reports in the media alleged that corruption, smuggling and racketeering were rife.
In January 2004, militants raided an armoury and started a killing spree. They have murdered Buddhist monks, teachers, hospital staff and civil servants – anyone seen as representing the Thai state. The army has seemed powerless to halt the chaos.
But at the same time Zachary Abuza, a political science professor at Simmons College in the US, and author of a forthcoming book about the Thai insurgency, offers a more nuanced take:
Will the CDR [Council for Democratic Reform] and interim administration be better equipped to deal with [it]? At the very least, there will be less political interference in counter-insurgent operations and fewer personnel reshuffles and policy initiatives from an impatient “CEO prime minister.” Second, the CDR is likely to implement many of the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Council that Thaksin had blatantly ignored. Though the NRC’s recommendations alone will not quell the insurgency, they will have an important impact in regaining the trust of the Muslim community. Third, [coup commander-in-chief Gen.] Sonthi [Boonyaratglin] has expressed a willingness to talk with insurgents, though to date only PULO has offered to talk and the aged leaders in Europe have no control over the insurgents. And many in the military establishment including Sonthi, himself a Muslim, have publicly refused to see the insurgency for what it is, denying it any religious overtones or secessionist goals. Nor is the political situation likely to alter the campaign of the insurgents. If anything they may step up attacks in an attempt to provoke a heavy-handed government response. The Muslim provinces have been under martial law for over two and a half years, with little to show for it but an alienated and angry populace.
All this leads to some concern about what the new constitution might contain. Boonyaratglin has promised that it will make the government more accountable, which is a good thing on its face; the former constitutional framework allowed Thaksin to accrue far too much personal power and was often ineffective in providing institutional checks and balances. The trouble is that it isn’t clear who will hold future governments to account. If the early signs are any indication, the military may impose a paternalistic, royalist-praetorian constitution in which unelected oversight agencies and councils hold the balance of power and the army and the throne are the final arbiters of political acceptability. Thailand may come out looking, at least in the near term, like Turkey up to the 1980s or Fiji today.
The Thai coup, in other words, carries more than a hint of Bertolt Brecht’s “Solution – that, the people having forfeited the military’s confidence, Boonyaratglin decided to dissolve it and elect another. Granted, he is unlikely to do so as literally as Stalin did, but he has evidently concluded that the people – who, after all, elected Thaksin – can’t entirely be trusted with democracy for the time being. Therefore, politics will be banned until the people – or, more specifically, institutions like the legislature and media through which the people expresses its will – are reordered to the military’s satisfaction and the balance between representative and non-representative organs is adjusted. As in Turkey or Fiji, the military doesn’t intend to dissolve the people very often, but it will ensure that their institutions are established in such a way that they don’t risk losing their guardians’ confidence.