Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Popular Military Coup? Or Just An Illusion?

Can you imagine living under a civilian government so corrupt, so evil, so out of touch with the needs and wishes of its people, that a military coup d'etat would be a cause for celebration?

Oh, you can? Fancy that!

It happened last week, in Thailand. While the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was in New York visiting the United Nations, the coup -- which had been a rumor in the wind for weeks -- became a reality. Soldiers siezed government offices, tanks surrounded the capital, Parliament and the constitution were "terminated". [my emphasis, here and below]

The Administrative Reform Group Under the Democratic System with the King as the Head of State has successfully seized the administrative power of the country.

To maintain peace and order, the Reform Group henceforth announces that:

1) The Constitution of Thailand of BE 2540 (1997) is terminated.

2) The Senate, the House of Representatives, the Cabinet, and the Constitutional Court are terminated along with the Constitution.
The army took control of the television stations, replacing regular programming with pictures of the royal family. And people came out to celebrate.

Time magazine called it "A Festive Coup", and reported:
Women in mini-skirts posed for pictures in front of tanks, while elderly men in pajamas jabbered on cellphones. Last spring, hundreds of thousands of Thai citizens had organized daily peaceful protests on Bangkok streets, calling for the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose popularity in urban areas had nosedived after the controversial sale of his family telecom business. [...] "Of course, I wish that the political situation had been solved in a democratic way," says Makarathep Thepkanjana, a physician who joined the anti-Thaksin rallies back in the spring and who was now standing next to a tank at the gates of Government House. "But, we are exhausted from having so many rallies. We're happy that the military coup is happening, because it means that Thaksin will be gone."

[...] Late on Tuesday evening, with satellite feeds of BBC and CNN intermittently jammed, a military spokesman announced on Thai TV that the armed forces, under the command of Army Chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, had taken over Bangkok and surrounding areas and was declaring martial law. The spokesman blamed the military's extreme measures on what he termed corrupt practices by Thaksin, alleging that the Prime Minister had hampered the workings of both parliament and the courts. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch, was reaffirmed as head of state, while the spokesman promised that a new caretaker Prime Minister would be named.
The BBC reported "surreal scenes on the streets of Bangkok.
[O]verall the mood was amazingly calm, considering that a coup had just taken place to oust the country's charismatic leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The soldiers posted around the city waved and smiled at people passing by, even posing with local people for photographs next to their tanks.

Supporters of the coup cheered, waving national flags and shouting "Thaksin out". Even local tourists joined in, treating the evening's events as an extra, unexpected photo opportunity.
Toronto's Globe and Mail headline read "People Are Smiling And Happy".
Thailand's coup plotters were feted as conquering heroes yesterday as Bangkok happily surrendered its freedoms to the camouflage-uniformed troops of the military junta that toppled their controversial leader.

The soldiers, idling in their tanks and jeeps on the streets of Bangkok, were mobbed by well-wishers who showered them with bouquets of carnations and daisies, gifts of fruit and bottles of water.

Parents brought their toddlers to admire the troops and pose for triumphant photos with the armoured vehicles. Crowds cheered for every jeep that drove out of military headquarters. The military vehicles were soon filled with flowers.
Can you imagine such a thing?

Oh, you can? Fancy that!

According to Canada's National Post:
Children playfully inspected tanks in the streets, soldiers snapped pictures of one another with cellphone cameras, and expat mothers tut-tutted over newspaper headlines while sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks.

The generals who had declared martial law the night before apologized for the "inconvenience" and assigned a comely former pop star to read announcements on television.
It didn't take the military long to clamp down.

On Wednesday, the BBC was reporting: Thailand's military tightens grip
Martial law has been declared, and the coup leaders have announced that regional commanders will take charge of areas outside the capital, Bangkok.

They have ordered provincial governors and heads of government agencies to report to them in the coming hours.

The country's stock market, banks and schools will be closed on Wednesday.
By Thursday, the tenor of the reports had changed dramatically. Britain's Times Online was saying: Coup leaders close down politics in Thailand
The leaders of Thailand's military coup clamped down on the country's political parties today, banning meetings and the formation of new parties until further notice.

Two days after the Thai Prime Minister was toppled by a bloodless putsch while he was attending the UN General Assembly in New York, Lieutenant-General Sondhi Boonyaratglin ordered political groups to stop holding meetings until a series of constitutional reforms were completed.

No timeframe was given for the ban ....

"The Council for Democratic Reform Under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) has ordered political parties to halt all meetings and political activities," read the statement, issued by the army commander-in-chief, whose coup was endorsed by Thailand's elderly King Bhumibol Adulyadej yesterday.
On Friday, Times Online was reporting: Arrests and censorship as generals brook no opposition
THAILAND’S self-appointed military rulers arrested their opponents, banned political meetings and prohibited television stations from broadcasting text messages from viewers yesterday, as the newly formed junta consolidated the success of Tuesday’s lightning coup.

Despite its insistence that it would hand over power to a civilian prime minister within a fortnight, the “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy” is permitting no expressions of opposition to its authority. By yesterday all media organisations that formerly supported the democratically elected Government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Prime Minister, had been suppressed or converted to the junta’s cause.
But, as The Guardian reported Friday, not everybody was happy.

Thai protesters defy martial law
Thailand's new military regime faced its first open dissent today when dozens of pro-democracy protesters violated martial law and demonstrated against the generals outside a Bangkok shopping centre.

The action, which was allowed despite a ban on gatherings of more than four people, occurred as the junta took part in a ceremony to formalise the backing of the deeply revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The generals also announced the creation of a revamped counter-corruption commission and ordered it to accelerate probes into the dealings of the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The demonstration was attended mostly by students and watched by several hundred people. Wearing black to mark the death of democracy, the group demanded that the military step down, the constitution be reinstated and rights such as freedom of speech be restored.

"You cannot build democracy through a military coup," said Giles Ungpakorn, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University. "The junta that took power claims to be a reform committee but it is a committee that has torn up the constitution. It claims to be democratic but has taken away our democratic rights."

Among the restrictions are tight curbs on the media. It emerged yesterday that armed soldiers are sitting in every television news studio and control room during broadcasts.
Clearly, not everyone was upset. On Saturday, Australia's Sydney Morning Herald reported, under the title "Lesser Of Two Evils":
Jon Ungpakorn, a former senator and civil society activist, cannot remember how many coups he has lived through - "too many to count". Most vivid for him was when his father, Dr Puey Ungpakorn, then rector of Bangkok's Thammasat University, was accused of being a communist in 1973 after a large student uprising centred on the university. "People were hanged by right-wing vigilantes in Saman Luang [Royal Field], near the university, many intellectuals fled to the jungle and my father was allowed to leave the country," he says.

The 59-year-old made a distinction between this week's coup and previous ones. "There was no previous coup that any democratic-minded person could support. The irony is a lot of people who support democracy have supported this coup.

"I don't support it but I am relieved Thaksin is overthrown. I am optimistic about present coup leaders but wonder who is behind them."

He said in effect Thaksin had staged the first coup by subverting the constitution in order to destroy the checks and balances during his five years in power. He did that by using his money and the traditional patronage system, Ungpakorn says.
It's difficult not to see parallels here. It's almost easy to imagine a military coup being popular in another country, far from Thailand. And it's not very hard to imagine that even now "armed soldiers are sitting in every television news studio and control room during broadcasts" -- or maybe every control room but one!

The statement about Thaksin "subverting the constitution in order to destroy the checks and balances during his five years in power" rings a horribly ironic bell, does it not?

But here's a difficult question: Is it possible to imagine a military coup in which a country's constitution -- rather than being "terminated" -- could be restored?

My answer? No! Unless hundreds of thousands of citizens had organized daily peaceful protests on the streets.