While criticism continues to pour in about the death of democracy in Thailand five months after a military government took power in September 2006, former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan says the country is on its way back to recovery after a "corrective coup".
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By Surin Pitsuwan*
BRUSSELS (IPS Asia-Pacific) -- The Sep 19, 2006 coup in Thailand was necessary -- a corrective measure -- in that it saved the country from the clutches of authoritarianism.
For the last five years, democracy in our country was used as a cover and an excuse for a very authoritarian approach to governance. Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's leadership was extremely autocratic. Civil liberties were contained, if not done away with. The media had been intimidated if they did not toe the line. Corruption was widespread.
After the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the country needed a very strong leadership. As an emerging democracy, Thailand was, at that time, also going through tremendous competition from the outside world due to globalisation.
When Thaksin won the elections in 2001, the government promised that it would protect its people from the competition and that they would survive in the world of globalisation. A strong dose of nationalism, however crude, emerged that time among the people.
Populism was another component that characterised Thaksin's regime. Populist projects -- easy credit, free healthcare -- flooded the villages. For the first time, Thai politics were giving marginalised communities attention with programmes such as micro-credit, infrastructure development and loans, to name some.
You cannot propel populism and sustain the interest and support of the people without some fund or budget to sustain these programmes. This is where corruption, the third element, comes in.
Lastly, there was authoritarianism. Criticism of the government had to be suppressed and this happened when Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) party edged out the opposition with 377 seats out of 500 in the parliament. The 1997 Constitution stipulated that the parliament needs at least 200 votes in order to file a no-confidence motion against a ruling prime minister.
The centralisation of power also contributed to the deteriorating situation of Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand. Since January 2004, almost 2,000 people have been killed in the deep south as a consequence for the leadership style of the government then.
It is because of the CEO approach -- 'Listen to me, I know best how to run this country' -- that led to the problems in the south. People appointed to resolve the situation in the south knew nothing about the problems and differences of the people there.
The last straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, was the sale of Thaksin's assets to Temasek Holdings, a Singapore-based investment company, for 3 billion U.S. dollars and which led to tax evasion charges being filed against the former premier.
The Thais are very loyal to the monarchy and the best way to keep it safe and secure is to have a stable parliamentary democracy. The political system by itself should be able to solve the country's problems. However, we have not been able to do that so every time there is a crisis, the monarchy steps in to defuse the conflict and that is not very healthy.
The people were exposed to two styles of leadership. One is the monarchy's self-sufficiency economy, which discourages materialism and encourages people to live within their means. It is very Buddhist, also very human and ethical.
For 60 years, the Thais have been used to King Bhumibol Adulyadej's kind of leadership. But here came Thaksin's materialistic, aggressive and noisy style of governance. Under this regime, getting into debt results in profit.
For the last year or so, the battle was not fought by way of street demonstrations, but in the psyche of the Thais who were torn between two opposing leadership styles. In the end, the people chose the leadership they have been used to for the last six decades. When the coup happened, about 90 percent of the people heaved a sigh of relief because they knew they have been misled by the past government.
It is good that the 'undercurrents' -- composed of sectors opposed to the coup -- are keeping the pressure on the coup leaders, who promised that they would only be in power for a year.
The King, on the eve of his birthday in December 2006, reiterated that there would be a new government later this year. During an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam in November 2006, assurances were given to the international community that the junta government will make true its promises.
We are committed to go back on the road to democracy. It is not going to be easy because the country is highly diversified. We are not justifying the coup and all we want is your understanding. (END/IPSAP/SP/LC/JS/050207)
(*These are excerpts from a talk delivered at an Asian Voices seminar on Dec, 12, 2006, organised by the European Policy Centre in Brussels with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Also read: bridgesfromasia/node/88)
* Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former minister of foreign affairs, is the director of Thailand's Democratic Party and a member of the National Legislative Assembly formed by the military-installed government after the Sep 19, 2006 coup.
(Photo credit: http://www.humansecurity-chs.org/about/profile/surin.html)