Dr. Suthichai Yoon, one of Thailand’s most respected journalists–and my personal favorite–says it best.
THE NATION – 09.21.06
‘Yellow ribbon coup’ was a very high price to pay
Call it a “reluctant coup” or a “yellow ribbon revolt”, Tuesday’s assumption of power by military leaders was still a prohibitively high price for the country to pay to remove an entrenched political tyrant. You can of course try to stretch the point and argue that Thaksin Shinawatra did ask for it. In fact, his arrogance and autocratic proclivity might have served as the last straw, prompting the top brass to opt for the “really inevitable last resort”.
While the use of unconstitutional means to topple a democratically elected government can never be justified, some insiders have suggested that Army Chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin’s decision to topple Thaksin through a military takeover was in fact a pre-emptive strike – or a “counter coup” to stave off an even more ignoble “self-coup” planned by Thaksin to establish himself, once and for all, as an all-powerful despot.
General Sonthi’s assurances that the top brass have no intention whatsoever to hold on to political power – and his public pledge to “return the power to the people as soon as possible” – might have allayed some of the fears inherent any time the military intervenes in national politics. However, he will have to move fast and convincingly, particularly in determining how to embark on genuine political reforms, to offset the negative impact brought about by the putsch.
Of equal, if not greater, importance is how he can turn this crisis of confidence into an opportunity for real national reconciliation. Whether he likes it or not, Thaksin will always be remembered for his dubious record of having brought Thai society to its most divided point in history, centred on the wild ambitions of just one power-hungry politician.
Paradoxically perhaps, the political havoc Thaksin wreaked through his claims on electoral democracy will have to be healed by Sonthi’s extra-constitutional modus operandi. If the Army chief is able to use these “extraordinary means” to solve an “extraordinary crisis” in order to reunify the country and help Thai society put its deep divisions in the past, he might be able to claim, however controversially, that the ends justified the means.
Quite apart from the debate over the pros and cons of this coup, however, this latest political episode underscores a deep-rooted flaw of this country. The fact that this change of government was effected through force shows that, whatever we say about having matured politically, we are basically still an extremely fragile society.
In fact, we are so vulnerable that any politician with sufficient money and clout, plus a shrewd marketing strategy, is capable of whipping a large segment of the population into a frenzy, confusing electoral manipulation with grassroots democracy. Worse, once a corrupt and powerful leader is entrenched, none of the existing constitutional mechanisms are capable of dealing with him.
Military intervention in a democratic system is always a “bad habit” that may stick if we once again allow ourselves the illusion that this will be the last time this dose of strong medicine is required to cure a serious disease.
Even if the first declaration from coup leaders sounded uncharacteristically apologetic (“Forgive us for the inconvenience caused”), once a political precedent of such proportion is set, it invariably stays. True democracy means never allowing coup leaders the excuse to stage their next exercise, even if they say they are sorry for their previous one.
In other words, if we can’t devise an effective system to get rid of a despot through constitutional means, that means we haven’t really graduated beyond the basics of democracy.