Copyrighted material


by Baradan Kuppusamy

on Thailand's military coup

(IPS) KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysians, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, reacted in shock at the sudden and unexpected crash of democracy in Thailand -- a country Malaysian activists looked to for pointers after two decades of autocratic rule under former premier Mahathir Mohamad ended.

But despite the fears that the generals will not easily hand power back to democratically elected civilians, as promised, few Malaysians really miss Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose "shoot-to- kill" policies against suspected criminals and ethnic Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand had alienated many Malaysians.

Shattered is the belief that military intervention in civilian politics was over for good after the 1992 putsch, and that Thai democracy was mature enough to be a showcase for adjacent ASEAN member countries like Cambodia Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Other members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia -- have also had their share of autocratic or military-backed regimes.

"I feel uncomfortable with the military coup. I fear it sets a dangerous precedent in a country that should have seen its last coup years back," said Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini, an independent news portal.

"Will the generals hand power back to civilians as they are promising? Does this coup mean the military will intervene again and again when civilian governments don't match up?" Gan said, speaking to IPS.

"The coup is not so much condemned, but the question is what the coup leaders will do now," Gan said. "There must be a more mature and democratic way to resolve differences in a democracy and that way is through elections."

One joke making the rounds here is whether the Malaysian military has any role to play in the ongoing tussle for political supremacy between Badawi and his predecessor Mohamad, a fight that has gripped the public's imagination.

But in contrast to the Thai military, which always had a political role, Malaysia's armed forces stay true to their British colonial tutoring, confined to the barracks and firmly under civilian control.

Even at the height of the communist insurgency in the 1960s, it was the police and not the military that played the lead role. So it is deeply disturbing to most Malaysians that the Thai military could overthrow a democratically elected government with such impunity, as it did this week.

Malaysian officials are scrambling to digest the significance and regional impact of the coup, looking especially for any major change in policy toward their Muslim brothers in southern Thailand.

"I am really shocked, I didn't expect a coup would have taken place in Thailand," Badawi told reporters on Wednesday. "This way of changing government does not go down well -- an election is a better proposition," he said, reflecting worries among ASEAN leaders at the sudden change in government and what it presages.

ASEAN was on the road to promoting human rights, civil society and democratic practices among member countries, with Thailand playing a key role in the process.

Prodded by Malaysia and Thailand, ASEAN had taken its toughest stand yet against the recalcitrant military junta in Burma. But after the brazen show of military power, those initiatives are sure to be relegated to the backburner.

The semi-official New Straits Times daily said in an editorial a day after the coup: "Whatever the motives of the coup leaders, this power grab needs to be condemned, as indeed it is seen by many of Thailand's trading and diplomatic friends in the region.

"It is unfortunate the military saw fit to resort to its old, bad, out-of-date habit that has already been discredited in Thailand itself," the daily said.

"Whether the coup masters will deliver on what they've pledged remains to be seen. But in a region where many countries have seen strongmen rule giving way to voter power, democracy and rule of law, what's happening in Thailand is a step backwards," the daily said.

The daily said the coup has put Thailand on par with coup-ridden African countries and the junta-ruled neighbor Burma, where Thailand has been trying to promote democracy. "The coup is bad for Thailand and ASEAN," the paper said.

For once, Malaysia's opposition parties were united in echoing the editorial stance of the government-controlled New Straits Times.

"No matter how crooked Thaksin was, he should have been removed through due process and through the will of the people, not the military," said S. Arulchelvam, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia. "Now that their appetite is whetted the risk is the military will want to hang around for longer than needed."

Coup leaders have suspended the cabinet and parliament, the constitutional court, taken control of media and arrested individuals close to the former government.

Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, a severe critic of any domestic anti-democracy tendencies, said he has no tears for Thaksin, but many fears for Thai democracy. "Decades of Thai progress in democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law had been undone by the military leaders," he said.

He urged an "immediate restoration of democracy and due process." This is important, he said, "not just for democratization in Thailand but for the rest of ASEAN, especially Myanmar."

However, nobody in Malaysia -- neither the government nor opposition nor civil society -- has suggested Thaksin be reinstated. Looking forward, social scientist and president of International Movement for a Just World, Chandra Muzaffar, said now that Thaksin has been dethroned it is imperative to look ahead and consider the impact of the coup.

He said two issues -- how soon democracy is restored and the policy toward Thai Muslims -- would be prominent in the aftermath of the bloodless coup. "How the two matters are resolved will be keenly watched," he told IPS.

"A permanent and lasting solution to the Muslim problem will help heal the wounds caused by Thaksin's hard line policies," he said. "It will go a long way to resolve Muslim anger."

Likewise, the influential Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which rules Kelantan state bordering southern Thailand and is criticized by Bangkok for sympathizing with the separatists, welcomed the coup and hoped the new government would end the violence against Muslims in the south.

"Muslim anger against Bangkok can be healed if the new government takes active steps to end the violence, repair the damage and open a fresh and meaningful dialogue with Muslim leaders," said Salahuddin Ayub, a prominent leader of the party. Whatever the arguments for or against the coup, most observers agree that democracy has taken a hit.

The Asian Center for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, said in a statement Wednesday: "If the latest coup in Thailand is justified, similar military interventions in a situation of political flux such as in Mexico will also be justified. The coup in Thailand is a threat to democracy all over the world."

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Albion Monitor   September 22, 2006   (

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