Thailand's Leap Backward

Thursday, September 21, 2006

THAILAND'S ARMY commander claimed yesterday that the military coup against the country's democratic government on Tuesday was necessary to end corruption and domestic political conflict. In fact the principal result of his condemnable action will probably be to worsen both. Thailand has a history of military coups, but for the past 15 years the army had appeared to accept the fact that such interventions invariably harmed rather than helped the country. Now the lesson will have to be learned again.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, said yesterday that the military did not want to rule; he promised to restore civilian government in a couple of weeks. But his intervention, which apparently had the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was clearly intended to end the career of Thailand's most popular civilian politician, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Thaksin was a bad leader who himself weakened Thai democracy by trying to intimidate and monopolize the media and by supporting brutal tactics in campaigns against drug traffickers and Muslim separatists. But it's pretty clear that he was supported by a majority of Thais and that his party would have won the parliamentary election that was to have been held this fall.

Gen. Sonthi said yesterday that the parliamentary election would be put off for a year while Thailand's constitution -- which he suspended -- is rewritten. That agenda may have the support of some Thai political parties, whose members have been trying all year to force Mr. Thaksin from power through such undemocratic means as street demonstrations. The coming constitutional reforms will probably be aimed at preventing prime ministers from monopolizing power, as Mr. Thaksin tried to do. But such reform could have been achieved through the democratic system; now it will be overseen by military officers or civilian politicians who didn't -- or couldn't -- win an election.

Thailand's democratic allies should not tolerate this rupture. The Bush administration designated Thailand as a major non-NATO ally because of its cooperation in the war on terrorism, but now it must respect the U.S. law mandating a suspension of military aid in the event of a coup. The administration should join with allies such as Australia, Japan and the European Union in insisting that the interruption of democracy by the Thai military is unacceptable. The White House made a start yesterday by indicating that talks on a free-trade agreement would be suspended. It should go further: Any government appointed by the Thai military should be shunned and U.S.-Thai relations frozen until a free and fair election is held.

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