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by Marwaan Macan-Markar and Johanna Son

on Thailand's military coup

(IPS) BANGKOK -- As Thailand's 18th coup ended its third day, the first cracks against a military solution to a political problem have surfaced. A small group of dissidents gathered to voice their opposition to the junta outside a swanky shopping mall here on Friday evening.

'No to Thaksin, No to coup,' read a protest sign held up by the dissidents, who numbered about 20. "Don't call it reform. It's a coup," said another.

Although limited in number, the dissidents, by standing up, are punching a few holes in the glowing picture painted by the mainstream Thai media that the junta has universal support for its power grab on the night of Sep. 19 to rid Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.

Thanaphol Eiwsakul, no stranger to controversy here when it comes to fighting for political and civil liberties, is among the leading voices daring to challenge the coup's leaders. "This coup is against democracy; it is against the law," the 33-year-old editor of 'Fah Diew Kan,' a Thai magazine known for its progressive views, said in an IPS interview hours before the gathering. "The announcements on TV supporting the coup are asking us to support something that is illegal. Would you support an act that is against the law?"

Sombat Boongnam-among, a prominent activist for minority rights who works in the northern Chiang Rai province, is also standing up to the new political order being imposed in this country through martial law. "They (the coup leaders) are censoring people's opinion and only one side -- their side -- is being presented," he told IPS. "I am not afraid of being arrested. It is my right to express my political opinion openly."

The 38-year-old activist, who is leading this protest, has already got a taste of the new censorship climate in force. A website he had launched on Thursday to express opinions about the coup -- as part of the '19 September Network against Coup d'Etat' group-- was shut down early morning Friday. "We had nearly 5,000 hits on our first day," he said. "The ISP said our information was too dangerous."

Sombat made his displeasure known during the Friday protest by wearing a white mask muzzling his mouth that had the words "freedom, freedom, freedom" written on it.

The dissidents, who include students, academics, journalists and activists, appear determined to raise a voice for democracy and human rights as the junta revealed tough measures to consolidate its grip on this Southeast Asian nation. Thus far, the coup leaders have banned political activities, made public gathering of more than five people for political discussion illegal, annulled the country's 1997 and taken over legislative powers after ending the authority of the 500-member parliament.

Similar restrictions have been placed on the media. In addition to summoning newspaper and television station editors to request that they present information to promote "national unity," the military government has also threatened to come down hard on those who violate new restrictions that place curbs on radio call-in shows, websites and text messages.

The irony of these impositions by a junta that is now calling itself the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) has not been lost on Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "One of the criticisms against Thaksin that was used to justify this coup was his control of the media. What we have now is ten times worst," he told IPS. "I am glad there are voices of dissent."

"We belong to a network of people opposed to the coup. We have always been against Thaksin," Giles said Friday to a group of reporters at the protest. "But we do not want political reform that takes place in a climate of a military dictatorship."

Their demands to the junta are three-fold, he added: the military should stop interfering in politics and go back to the barracks, bring back the 1997 constitution and restore the right to freedom of expression and association and freedom for the press.

This spark of opposition to the ruling junta comes as it continues searching for the ideal candidate to take over as prime minister. Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin declared shortly after tanks rolled into the Thai capital Tuesday night to depose the democratically elected Thaksin that he would resign from power in two weeks and hand the reigns of government to an interim premier.

Among the names mentioned in the local media to fill the top government job are Supachai Panitchpakdi, an internationally respected Thai, who has served as the head of the World Trade Organization and is currently chairman of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Others in the running are the president of the Supreme Court and the governor of the Bank of Thailand.

But as Friday's protest revealed, the honeymoon enjoyed by the coup leaders may not last long. "The tolerance for this coup will not be indefinite," Michael Nelson, a German academic specialising in Thai political culture, told IPS. "They will have to hand over authority to a civilian government soon."

The sentiments that bubbled to the surface following this week's coup--which was welcome with joy by a large section of Bangkok's middle and upper-middle class citizens, including some giving flowers to the armed soldiers on the streets outside key government buildings--had little mystery to it. This politically powerful constituency had raged since the beginning of this year through street protests to bring down the Thaksin administration. The deposed premier was accused of corruption, nepotism and the abuse of power by his critics.

For Thaksin, who has chosen not to mount a challenge against the junta from where he currently is, in London, the only good news may be the views flowing from Thailand's provinces. It was the voters in that part of the country that came out in large numbers to elect his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai -- TRT) party to power at the 2001 and 2005 general elections. Those two massive victories for the TRT enabled Thaksin to become the first prime minister to complete a full four-year term and to be re-elected for a second successive term since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

"If there is another election, I will look at the policies of each party, but I am quite sure that Thaksin's policies are the best and I will vote for Thaksin again," Suwit Saengmaneetham, who owns a pharmacy in the north-eastern province of Sakon Nakhon, told IPS by phone.

A fellow resident of the same province was of the same mind. "Thaksin helped to develop people at the grassroots level better than any other government in the past," Wisak Kaewsiri, who runs a clothing shop, added. "Thaksin was the best prime minister."

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Albion Monitor   September 22, 2006   (

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