A view from Bangkok

I’ve been sent the following, which appears to reflect the views of a lot of people in Thailand (or at least among the educated classes in Bangkok), welcoming the coup that displaced PM Thaksin. The author is an academic at Thammasat university, and he is writing a message addressed to foreign students

My own views of Thaksin, whose career I’ve followed reasonably closely, are similar to those of the author – I would have welcomed his removal by constitutional processes. On the other hand, like John Howard, I would have hoped that Thailand, and our region in general, had got past the point where military coups were part of the political process.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, I hope for a peaceful outcome and a quick return to democracy.


To All Foreign Students

As one of your lecturers here at Thammasat, I would like to help allay any concerns or fears that you might have, as newcomers and foreigners, regarding last night’s coup in Thailand.
The country had been deeply divided for almost a year, and you may have seen that many parts of civil society – academics, journalists, health professionals, universities – had repeated called upon Prime Minister Thaksin to step down so that allegations of wrongdoing can be properly investigated.  He had used every means to stifle these legitimate attempts, including the dissolving of Parliament.
The suppression of foreign news channels may have caused some concern, but I would like to assure you that, even though the situation is still uncertain, there is no cause for alarm. Please read the English-language newspapers; news websites can also be accessed. However CNN’s headline on its website last night (“Thailand in chaos after coup”) is absolutely misleading, and such irresponsible journalism may have caused concern among your families back home.

It’s sad to see foreign governments and journalists re-acting to the coup in Thailand in a negative, albeit, predictable way. Words like “chaosâ€? and “turmoilâ€? are bandied about as if they had a standard set of phrases in their pockets.

It almost seems that ‘form’ is more important than ‘substance’, or that political correctness requires them to regurgitate the same rehearsed phrases. 

Fortunately, people on the streets give a different testimonial, like Australian John Newman who runs Big John’s Backpacker Hostel in Bangkok, who says: “People have been a little bit curious. It doesn’t seem to be stopping anything at the moment. People have been out in bars drinking and taxis have been driving around. Everything is pretty much as normal.”

In my opinion, the troubles leading up to the coup are actually a sign of greater political maturity among the Thai people.  More people are thinking about social issues, about civil society, and making huge sacrifices for what they believe is right.   We are willing to accept some discomfort, and bear some cost, to show that rampant corruption and conflicts of interest in the Thaksin government will not be tolerated. 
From what foreign journalists are saying, I know the situation must be very confusing.    Journalists talk about previous coups in Thailand, and seem to equate the current situation with those other incidents. They say that coups should be a thing of the past and most of us would agree.  But the current circumstances are unique.  We understand that foreign investment could be jeopardized, but this is the least of our concerns.  This coup is generically quite different from those in the past.  It is not a self-serving power struggle.  This coup should not be seen as an act of barbarism.  It is intended to bring morality, rectitude, integrity and common decency back into Thai society.  

The democratic checks and balances had broken down because of money politics on a scale hitherto unknown. So-called independent agencies had been compromised.  The legislative process has been hi-jacked and the judicial process crippled.  At no other time in Thailand’s history had laws been made and amended to serve personal interests so blatantly.  I am certain that the coup leaders felt that this really is the last resort, and that all other avenues for correcting the system had been blocked.
Democracy is not the mere casting of votes; it requires an institutional infrastructure that serves as checks and balances.  For months people had strained to abide by the rule of law – it was painful.   People from all walks of life had held peaceful demonstration after demonstration, presented huge amounts of evidence, and demanded explanations that had not been forthcoming.  Thaksin dissolved Parliament just when the Opposition won a by-election and had enough seats to initiate a censure motion against him.  He says that the people should decide.  But there are very specific allegations of wrongdoing.  Right and wrong cannot be decided by popularity.  There must be due process which has been repeatedly denied the people. It is precisely the belief in the rule of law that has motivated this coup, or at least support for it.

This coup is not like previous coups.  It is Thailand’s way of sacking a prime minister who has overstepped the bounds of human decency.
Please rest assured that you are in no danger, and you are living the age-old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times�! I firmly believe that the political situation will be quickly resolved.

6 thoughts on “A view from Bangkok

  1. Fine words do not change the fact that the Thai military has forcibly deposed a democratically elected PM. We should all find it intensely disturbing that people can support the coup just because they think Thaksin is a bad guy. We would not accept such a rationale for a coup here.

    It will be interesting to see what happens if Thaksin runs in the new elections. If he runs and wins (and he might) will there be another coup? Will it have the same level of domestic and international support?

  2. Having worked briefly with a few in the Thai Army and through my limited understanding of the byzantine links at the highest levels between all the Generals in the Army and the Police, I have quite a lot of faith that, while distasteful, what they have done is for the good fo the country.

  3. My inclination is “No to Thaksin, no to coup” as shown in TV coverage of a Bangkok protest last night.

    But was a democratic resolution of the Thai political situation possible?

    From the little I know there is a city vs. rural divide in Thai society which Thaksin expoited.

    Assuming there is no significant electoral gerrymander favouring rural voters, then it seems the rural interests favoured “strong” leadership whilst the city elites wanted “responsive” leadership.

    One of the roles the King plays in Thai politics is to bridge this city vs. rural divide. For example, I am told he speaks Thai with a distinctive rural accent, even when performing unifying national tasks.

    So the challenge for us democrats is to adapt western democratic models to countries with deeply layered socio-economic structures undergoing rapid change.

  4. I am no fan of Taksin and less for the use of Military forces to solve any problems. It is very sad for me to see what sort of option we took to get rid of him this way. However, it makes me reflect deeper why we Thais can’t just leave this sort of measures behind and really embrace the real democracy.

    I think the main reason why Taksin got into power because he knows the rules of the democratic game some people play so well. Theoritically, when one voice equals other voices in election, which should be a good thing, unfortunately not all of us have the right information to make decision that will be best for ourselves in the longer term. Besides, if you look around, military force or the liked is the most popular mode which majority of the nations adopt to solve problems in their own backyard or elsewhere.

    Democracy as participatatory process has been deployed merely as a method to become so-called democratic country. We seem to forget that if people are not informed properly, there is a little chance that we will really get there. I am talking about not only providing basic education for people to read and write but also informing their rights, providing a safe space to express themselves, being transparent by giving them access to information, helping them to process it and ensuring that the voices are being listened to.

    Thais are divided by so many layers of social divisions and the gaps are getting wider and wider each day. Education and other backbone institutions badly needs a reform. I hope what happened with Taksin this week will help us to reflect on how we are doing as a nation and bring about the real change. I am also very hopeful that this coup will be the last one and that we will take a better approach toward real democracy from now.

  5. A lot of people are suggesting that this coup is different from earlier ones. In one sense this is true because political power in Thailand is no longer a matter of circulating military elites; it is no longer the case that the only means of upward social mobility is to use military office to become wealthy. There are many others now with a stake in the continuing prosperity of Thailand’s market economy and a strong desire to ensure that the market is governed by rules rather than personal influence. In another sense it demonstrates how little anything has really changed in Thailand. The rapidity with which the coup has been accepted as ‘sad but necessary’ measures very precisely the depth to which a democratic ethos has penetrated the society. Leksy expresses the hope that this coup will act as a ‘wake up call’ to bring about some real change. I suspect that’s a bit optimistic.

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