The World from Berlin Does Thailand Have a Democratic Future?

Two days after the military takeover in Thailand, life has largely returned to normal on the streets of Bangkok. Many Thais seem pleased with the coup. But has Thailand turned its back on democracy for good?

Many in Thailand have welcomed the military overthrow of the country's government.

Many in Thailand have welcomed the military overthrow of the country's government.

Two days after Thailand's army commander General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin staged a military coup to take over power in the country on Tuesday evening, daily life has largely returned to normal in the capital. Streets are once again choked with traffic as Thais headed back to work after two days off. Indeed, according to many on the streets of Bangkok, things felt just like they did before the coup.

"It feels like a normal day. Nothing is different," Nuttawee Chotsawat, who works at a 7-11 in downtown Bangkok, told the AP. "There is nothing to be afraid of."

Indeed, despite a history of violent military takeovers, this one has proven peaceful and even quite friendly with soldiers receiving flowers from passers-by and tanks decorated with yellow ribbons, the color of the monarchy. Many in Thailand are united behind the coup due to an almost universal disgust with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was in New York attending the General Assembly of the United Nations when Sondhi made his move, and despite attempting to call for a state of emergency, was unable to do anything to prevent the takeover. On Thursday, he is still in London, where he flew shortly after the coup, taking a "deserved rest." He has not said if he plans to return to Thailand.

The country's new leaders have moved to purge Thaksin's political allies and have banned all party meetings and the establishment of new political parties. They are also investigating Thaksin's considerable assets as calls mount to prosecute him for corruption. German commentators on Thursday are largely sceptical of the overthrow.

The center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stresses that no one in the country seems to be particularly unhappy about the overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin since he has succeeded in alienating even his former allies by his incompetence and connection to corruption. "Although he still enjoyed a two thirds majority in parliament in February," the commentator writes of Shinawatra, "the prime minister has succeeded in making himself unpopular so quickly that even those military commanders who originally sympathized with him chose to take no action against Tuesday's coup. Thaksin has quite obviously been interpreting the public interest in such a way that he and his family profited most." Still, Thaksin's overthrow has done little to solve the country's problems -- and in fact have served to highlight the weakness of its democratic institutions. "What is one to think of a country that many thought of as a stable democracy, but which seems in fact to dispose of only one stable institution, the present king?" Not only does the king seem to be more powerful than Thailand's elected government members, but the state institutions themselves don't seem to be particularly lasting either, the commentator points out: "The new Council for Administrative Reform" – an interim governing body set up by the junta – "has lived up to its name by declaring all state institutions defunct. And now a new constitution will be drafted for Thailand – yet again."

Another conservative daily, Die Welt, takes much the same approach: "Coups Are No Solution," reads the title of its commentary on Thailand on Thursday. While Sondhi and his allies don't strike the commentator as particularly dangerous, the paper nevertheless disapproves. "The leaders of the coup seem to be nice people," the paper writes. "The seizure of power occurred without bloodshed. The coup leaders have announced that their coup is directed only against Thaksin, who was without doubt a deceitful, power-hungry and greedy ruler…. But the end doesn't justify the means." Like the rest of Thailand's political opposition, the coup leaders display a troubling lack of faith in democracy's ability to solve the country's crises constitutionally, the commentator argues. The paper also argues that the country has become too dependent on its monarch, King Bhumibol. "The seizure of power doesn't just make Bangkok's so-called civil society look bad. It makes the king appear in a dubious role too."

A lengthy commentary in the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung characterizes the coup in Bangkok as a "Coup for the Preservation of the State." The commentator begins by noting that the coup was well-timed and apparently carefully prepared. Not only did Sondhi wait until Thaksin was out of the country, but "no one was expecting a seizure of power at this time -- the civil unrest that occurred in the spring had just tapered off. The coup was obviously well prepared, and apparently legitimated by the king." The Munich paper, too, is sceptical whether a military coup will prove good for Thailand, but also devotes considerable space to Thaksin's incompetence and corruption. Sympathizing with the political opposition in the country she characterizes as "the most liberal in Southeast Asia," the commentator wonders: "What constitutional means were available for getting rid of a Prime Minister who so obviously doesn't care about the law?"

Thaksin was long viewed with approval by the advocates of democratic reform, the commentator points out: He was considered "one of those new politicians who would guarantee democratic progress for Thailand," and he was "the first prime minister to remain in office for a full term." But, she adds, he also quickly revealed himself to be a ruthless and brutal ruler: "His so-called war on drugs was welcomed by the middle classes at first. But it involved the police killing more than 2,000 people. And his struggle against the putative separatists in the south of Thailand cost 1,700 Thai citizens their lives, while many others disappeared without a trace." That Thaksin engaged in "open censorship" of the media and consistently "undermined the country's political institutions," thereby "bringing under his control those state bodies that should really have been controlling him," didn't irritate his voters. "For they had more money in their pockets than before," according to the commentator. She points out that "the crux of the entire issue" consists precisely in the fact that "Thaksin came to power thanks to a majority of voters electing him, and that majority didn't care about his anti-democratic activities." That's why "a swift return to democracy looks doubtful in Thailand," the commentator concludes.

-- Max Henninger, 2:30 p.m. CET


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