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Yet Another Coup

There have been 17 coups in Thailand since World War II. This is the first coup since 1992. Whether the coup leaders are able to stabilise themselves or face opposition would depend on the attitude of the King to the coup.
Yet Another Coup
Yet Another Coup
The military coup in Thailand on September 19, 2006, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was away to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, has come in the wake of a long period of unrelenting political confrontation between him and the opposition parties and persisting jihadi terrorism in the three Muslim majority southern provinces (Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat) bordering Malaysia--both reminiscent of the state of affairs in Bangladesh.

The political confrontation, which was triggered off by allegations of arbitrary and corrupt governance by Mr. Thaksin and his erratic style of functioning, was made worse by the divide between Bangkok and rural Thailand. The Bangkok elite, which has always exercised, like the Parisian elite of France, a disproportionately large influence over the country's political landscape despite its numerical minority, had difficulty in accepting a leader, who owed his political rise and survival to the support of the rural poor and not to the elite of the capital.

Mr. Thaksin, an ex-policeman of Chinese origin, who himself came from Chiangmai in the rural north, gravitated to politics from the world of business, where he had made a name as Thailand's telecom tycoon after leaving the police. He tried to introduce into the corridors of the Government the lessons on efficiency and success which he had learnt in the corporate world. Even his worst critics admit that his contribution to improving governmental efficiency and the resulting economic prosperity was considerable. For a tycoon from the corporate world, he showed more sensitivity to the welfare and problems of the rural and urban poor than any professional politician had done in the past.

What undid him despite this was the widespread perception in Bangkok of nepotism and corruption and his seeming disregard for the rules of the democratic game. The overwhelming support of the rural poor for him and his ability to win elections with their support made him disregard the views and criticism of the urban elite, which united against him last year to start a long period of street agitation in the name of good and democratic governance free of the evils associated with his tenure.

They projected his continuance in politics as incompatible with good and democratic governance and boycotted the parliamentary elections of last April, which robbed the elections of any constitutional validity despite his securing a majority for his Thai Ruk Thai party. He made a temporary exit from the post of Prime Minister in order to satiate the opposition and make it amenable to participation in a fresh election, scheduled for November.

When the opposition agitation seemed to have started losing steam as a result of his temporary exit, he resumed charge again as the caretaker Prime Minister, thereby provoking them again into a state of confrontation. It was the intervention of the King, who is venerated by the entire country, which managed to restore a semblance of balance to political life in the country.

But this did not change his ways of functioning. The on-again, off-again political confrontation between him and the opposition and his chronic inability to change his style of functioning endangered political stability in Thailand, creating fears of its likely negative impact on its hitherto prosperous economy.

In his preoccupation with the political challenges from the opposition in Bangkok, he neglected the bleeding ulcer of jihadi terrorism in the three Muslim majority provinces of Southern Thailand, which has resulted in nearly 1,400 fatalities during the last two years. His handling of the persisting terrorism was typical of his erratic style of functioning. A lack of consistency in his attention to the problems and grievances of the Muslims of the south, his failure to realise the gravity of the problem and his reliance on old cronies from the police to deal with the situation despite their lack of understanding of the sensitivities of the Muslims resulted in a bleeding low-intensity, medium- fatality and high-alienation insurgency.

The jihadi terrorism in Southern Thailand has more in common with terrorism in Bangladesh than with that in the rest of South-East Asia. The apparent model is not so much the Jemmah Islamiya (JI) of South-East Asia as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen (JUM) of Bangladesh. The defining characteristics of the Bangladesh model--well-orchestrated multiple attacks meant more to demonstrate their presence and strength than to kill unnecessarily, avoidance of mass casualty terrorism and avoidance of attacks on foreign nationals--were replicated in Southern Thailand and supplemented by targeted assassinations from moving two-wheelers of not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims associated with the local administration, a typical modus operandi of the HUJI and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi of Pakistan.

The implications of the large-scale movement (over 1000) of Muslims from Southern Thailand to Pakistan and Bangladesh for studying in the madrasas there remained unexamined by successive Governments in Thailand. This has created a growing reservoir of jihadi recruits in the area.

Dealing with the jihadi terrorism and putting an end to it called for an integrated counter-terrorism strategy encompassing the revamping of the intelligence apparatus in the southern provinces and in Bangkok, strengthening of physical security and the counter-terrorism capability of the local police and a mechanism for monitoring and solving the grievances of the Muslims. Such a strategy is yet to be evolved. The apparently weak state of the intelligence collection, analysis and assessment process is reflected in the inability of the Government to clearly identify the organisation or organisations responsible for the terrorism and their external linkages. Recent terrorist strikes indicate a possible change in the jihadi tactics, with a willingness to target the foreign tourists to Southern Thailand, who are not many. The terrorists are still keeping away from Bangkok and other tourist spots.

In June, at least 40 home-made bombs exploded across the three southern provinces, killing at least two people and injuring many others. On August 31, two people were killed and many others injured in the Yala province when 21 banks were attacked with bombs in quick succession. On September 15, four people, including two foreigners, were killed and 62 injured after five bombs ripped through a popular tourist area at Hat Yai in the Songkhla province. On September 17, bombers and arsonists set fire to school buildings, attacked a military convoy and damaged a railway track in the Narathiwat province. There were no fatalities.

Among the various organisations, which have been blamed by the local Police from time to time, are the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), an organisation of the 1970s vintage, the BRN (the Barisan Revolusi Nasional), its offshoot RKK (Runda Kumpularm Kecil) and the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani). The RKK has been blamed by the police for many of the recent incidents.

These two factors--the continuing high political and economic cost of Mr. Thaksin's confrontation with his political opponents and his lack of effective attention to the bleeding ulcer in the South--seemed to have triggered off the coup led by Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, with the reported backing of the chiefs of the Air Force and the Navy. Sonthi, who is reputed to be close to the King, will serve as acting Prime Minister, army spokesman Col. Akarat Chitroj said. Gen. Sonthi is reported to be a Muslim.

In a televised statement, the General said: "We have seized power. The Constitution, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Cabinet and the Constitutional Court have all been terminated. We agreed that the caretaker Prime Minister (Mr. Thaksin) has caused an unprecedented rift in society, widespread corruption, nepotism, and interfered in independent agencies, crippling them so they cannot function. If the caretaker Government is allowed to govern it will hurt the country. They have also repeatedly insulted the King. Thus, the council needed to seize power to control the situation, to restore normalcy and to create unity as soon as possible."

Mr. Thaksin's deputy and most trusted aide Mr. Chidchai Vanasathidya, the secretary in the Prime Minister's office, Mr. Prommin Lertsuridej, and Mr. Thaksin's brother-in-law Mr. Somchai Wongsawat, who is permanent secretary in the Justice Ministry, are reported to have been detained by the Army.

There have been 17 coups in Thailand since World War II. This is the first coup since 1992. Whether the coup leaders are able to stabilise themselves or face opposition would depend on the attitude of the King to the coup.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai.

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