To get my bearings on last night’s coup in Thailand, I (naturally) consulted the pages of the Nation, the country’s best newspaper. (I’ve met some of the Nation’s editors; I wish them well.) The following unsigned "Comment" is a precise balancing act, but I think it leaves no doubt about the damage sustained by Thailand’s democratic project.
Onus now on coup leaders to restore trust of the people
They proclaimed to be doing it in the name of democracy, to wipe out rampant corruption and to rehabilitate a badly divided nation. Now the coupmakers have to prove their intent. And unlike those before them, the Thai armed forces leaders who seem to have overthrown caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup, have very little time to do so.
The world is watching and scrutinising. To many democracy lovers, Thaksin’s downfall, engineered by top military officers, led by Army CommanderinChief Sonthi Boonyaratklin, turned back the clock on Thailand’s political development.
The use of military force, instead of a free and fair election, to change government can hardly be condoned in a democratic society like ours, let alone the fact that the coup took place just months before the country was due to hold a general elecฌtion.
The coupmakers are luckier than those before them in that much of society now believes they have done the wrong thing for the right reason. But the perception that this is something done in good faith will be extremely fragile. Public trust in power in the hands of men with guns can last as long as the smoke that follows when a shot is fired.
The slower the coupmakers are in the pledged transfer of power back to the people, the more Thaksin will look like a "pretext" and not the "reason" for the power seizure. Today, he is seen as a seriously flawed political leader, who had tried to propagate and perpetuate a culture of corruption and deceit that threatened to undermine democracy as we knew it.
Throughout his five and a half years in power, he was exposed as a greedy politician who had pursued selfinterest at the expense of public good. Even called a tyrannical leader by some, he was accused of rolling back civil liberties, suppressing dissenting voices, not to menฌtion his flagrant violation of human rights as part of a sinister design to dominate and then monopolise political power so as to indulge in corrupt practices unimpeded.
Ideally, the likes of Thaksin should be rejected at the ballot box or through public pressure in the form of peaceful protests. The problem is most people did not believe both options available to them would succeed in removing him from power. To many people the military coup against Thaksin may be a necessary evil.
But make no mistake, the seizure of power, albeit one that was achieved without the loss of lives, is nonetheless a form of political violence that is incompatible with the democratic aspirations of the Thai people. Democratic aspirations will live on even as the Constitution has already been abrogated by the coup leaders.
The spirit of democracy that undermined Thaksin’s apparent omnipresence will now shift its watchful eyes to the coup leaders.
The Administrative Reform Council has pledged allegiance to democracy under the constitutional monarchy and cited Thaksin’s corruptionprone leadership and his disrespect for the monarchy as justification for the coup. But it cannot be emphasised enough that the coup party has now also concentrated all power of government in its own hand unrestrained by public accountability or system of checks and balances.
The coup group wanted the public to take them at their own word that they would do their best to implement needed reform and rid politics of corruption for now. They will be expected to promise to return sovereign power to the people, organise a free and fair election and then ensure a smooth transfer of power to the next democraticallyelected civilian government.
We expect the coup group to make clear how exactly it will implement its plans to restore democracy in this country, complete with defฌinite timeframes.
A transitional government headed by a respected and politicallyneutral civilian leader with unblemished personal integrity must be installed and a provisional parliament must be set up to draft a new constitution within specific timeframes leading up to a fresh general election and a return to democracy.
Once a transitional government is installed, all coup leaders must submit to the authority of the new civilian leader and bring back their troops to the barracks.
They must also prove beyond any reasonable doubt that they do not seek personal gains from the absolute power they now hold or intend to retain indirect control of the provisional government for ulterior motives.
It must be stressed that the first task of the coup group is to restore the confidence of both democracyloving Thais as well as the international community and foreign investors that democracy will be restored and this time democratic development will be sustainable and democฌracy will come equipped with inbuilt selfcorrecting mechanisms so that military coups will be put to rest for good.