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Coup In Thailand: Troubling Harbinger for Democracy

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By John E. Carey
September 30, 2006

On Tuesday, September 19, 2006, a military coup removed one of the world's democratically elected president's from his office. In a bloodless, in fact, bullet-less coup, while Thailand's Prime Minister was in New York at the United Nations, his job was taken away.

A general took over.

The former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra flew into probable exile in London, telling Thai journalists aboard his chartered flight: "I was prime minister when I went [to New York], but I am jobless on the way back."

Thaksin was democratically elected twice. "If elections were held tomorrow and supervised by the United Nations, Thaksin would win," says political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "And that's a problem for Thailand."

It is a big problem because the general who ran the coup thinks otherwise. "We were forced by the situation to stage a coup," said Thailand's self-declared leader Army Cmdr. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin. "Nobody guided us to do it. We listened to the voice of the people."

Those two statements, that Thaksin would win an election held today and the reasoning of coup leader Sonthi that the Army was only listening to the people should worry every person committed to democracy everywhere. Yet both the United Nations and the United States, the world's leading and longest existing democracy, have remained fairly quiet.

The U.S. announced the withdrawal of some promised economic aid to Thailand more than ten days after the coup.

Worse still, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN did not even condemn the coup.

And we know the U.S. Secretary of State, for one, thinks ASEAN is fairly important.

During the war between Israel and Hezbollah last July, Secretary Rice cancelled trips to Vietnam, China, Japan and South Korea, yet she made it all the way to she made it all the way to Malaysia for the ASEAN conference. She even played the piano for ministers at dinner (Brahms' Sonata in D Minor, 2nd Movement).

The coup was instigated by Army Cmdr. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin who imposed sweeping curbs on civil liberties, isolated some top Army officers loyal to Thaksin, and then outlined a timetable for restoring democracy. He said new elections will be held in a year.

Thailand's ruling junta had selected retired general Surayud Chulanont, 63, to replace Thaksin. Learning this news, the U.S. State Department issued a moderate statement of little substance.

"But certainly somebody with close ties to the military is going to have to at least overcome the perception that they are maintaining a close relationship with the military and may be not acting in defense of Thai democracy," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

AFP said the U.S. "withheld formal comment" but that "the United States expressed unease over reports that a former army chief had been chosen to run Thailand's government after the military ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra."

Wrote George Wehrfritz for the October 2, 2006 issue of Newsweek, "No amount of sugarcoating can mask Sonthi's power grab as anything but a bitter blow to democracy, both in Thailand and beyond."

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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.

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