Thai Coup Highlights Struggles Over Democracy

A tourist poses with Thai soldiers in Bangkok. Last week's coup has drawn international rebuke, with the United States now reviewing military and other assistance to Thailand.
A tourist poses with Thai soldiers in Bangkok. Last week's coup has drawn international rebuke, with the United States now reviewing military and other assistance to Thailand. (By Apichart Weerawong -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 24, 2006

BANGKOK -- Inside the teeming Khlong Toei slum in the shadow of this city's modern skyscrapers, 60-year-old street vendor Chalaem Tiensiri is still proudly displaying campaign stickers from deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's party on the walls of her shack. Asked about the bloodless military coup last week that abruptly ousted Thaksin from power, she looked down at her empty hands and quietly cried.

Echoing the feelings of many on the warren-like streets of Khlong Toei, Chalaem said the poor in Thailand were largely ignored before Thaksin was elected in a landslide in 2001. A billionaire tycoon who became the hero of the underclass, Thaksin ushered in universal health care that allowed Chalaem's cancer-stricken daughter to receive chemotherapy for less than $1 per treatment. His war on drugs, she said, drove the methamphetamine dealers from the neighborhood's tough streets. Local leaders from Thaksin's party provided free milk for her young grandson and brought the struggling widow gifts of rice several times a year.

"I don't care what they say about Thaksin, he was the first one who ever cared about us," she said, kneeling next to her ill daughter who rested languidly on a cot. "He gave me a chance to keep my daughter alive. He gave us food when we were in need. Now that he's been chased out, the poor have lost their closest friend."

Chalaem's lingering respect for Thaksin -- still widely shared among the urban poor and rural farmers across the country's north and northeast -- underscores the core problems confronting Thailand and a host of other emerging nations as they try, and sometimes fail, to cultivate healthy democracies.

Thaksin followed the path of other democratically elected leaders, like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who are accused of using their posts to enhance their power at the expense of democratic institutions. Thaksin, following that pattern, gained popular support by pushing through policies aimed at easing the plight of the poor while using handouts of food and even cash to ensure votes at election time.

Experts say such populist-driven politics has exacerbated class divisions and created a significant hurdle to maintaining the rule of law for some developing countries. Well-educated middle- or upper-class Thais have generally embraced the coup as a regrettable but necessary step toward ending Thaksin's grip on power and ushering in a new constitution. The provisional military government, headed by the soft-spoken Royal Thai Army chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, has promised to name a civilian as caretaker prime minister in the coming days and hold elections within one year.

Foreign advocates for democracy and some domestic observers in Thailand have seen a clear conflict in such support for the coup. While the ousted prime minister infuriated his opponents by clinging to power, he simultaneously enjoyed unparalleled popularity among the nation's largest block of voters -- the poor. Some anti-Thaksin forces have even indirectly blamed the unquestioning support by poor Thais of the ousted prime minister for Thailand's current crisis.

"We understand that to some extent we have failed to address the problems of the poor, and we need to do a better job," said Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and leading member of the opposition Democrat Party. "The problem is that in Thailand, Thaksin created a class of people dependent on state handouts. We need to teach these people that there are no such things as free gifts in a real democracy and that it does them more harm than good to live off the largess of corrupt leaders."

Democracy advocates abroad, meanwhile, are viewing the case of Thailand -- an important regional ally of the United States and one of Southeast Asia's largest economies -- as particularly demoralizing.

In the 15 years since the last military takeover here, Thailand had emerged as the region's model for democratic reform. Already, the jailed leaders of a February coup attempt against Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo have made comments to the foreign press hailing the successful military men of Bangkok as exemplary patriots.

Analysts fear the Thai coup will also embolden existing military juntas, such as the one in neighboring Burma, to resist mounting international pressure to enact democratic reforms.

"The comeback from other nations in the region when they are told to make democratic reforms will be, 'Hey, look at Thailand. They couldn't make it work and the military had to take charge again,' " said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Their argument will be that the people are just not eager for democracy and that the military men still know best."

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