A Coup in the Making? Expert in Bangkok says Autumn had been Dawning on the Thai Patriarch

In Bangkok, the middle class is in a bind: they loathe Thaksin but are appalled at the sight of tanks.

BANGKOK, Thailand

It was the 18th coup in Thailand since 1932, but the first since 1992. Before Tuesday, the Thai military had extricated itself from politics and coups seemed passé, as democracy took root. What led to such a reversal and what are the domestic, regional and geopolitical implications?

The tanks surrounding Government House had yellow ribbons, the ubiquitous symbol of the monarchy, tied to their barrels while soldiers tied them to their epaulets, in a sign of reverence to the King. At the root of this was a class issue: Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies represent the nouveau riche of Thailand and are despised by the monarchy and the old economic elite, the Sino-Thai taipans. Thaksin sought through his populist policies to make himself more popular than the country's beloved monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej. But though the coup is firmly rooted in elite politics, it was justified for several reasons, firstly by the ongoing political stalemate caused by allegations of corruption by Thaksin and his administration.

Many in the security establishment also resent Thaksin, a former policeman, for promoting many of his former colleagues and friends over better-qualified and more senior officers. Thaksin too often interfered in the annual promotions of the military, which the corps saw as its purview. And there was disgust amongst the officer core of both the army and police of political interference in quelling the southern insurgency that has left more than 1,300 people dead in the past 33 months-a conflict that is spiraling out of control.

In Bangkok, the middle class is in a bind. They loathe Thaksin. But they are appalled at the sight of tanks on the street and worry about the long-term economic impact of extra-constitutional remedies. While there was no bloodshed as in the 1976 and 1992 coups, it is a clear step backwards in the country's political development. In the countryside, where Thaksin is immensely popular, there is more unhappiness. Thaksin's populist policies included bt30 per visit medical care program and loans-winning him immeasurable support from the country's still majority rural electorate. 

While the world turned its attention to Thai politics with the coup, the political situation had long been simmering dangerously. The Royal Thai Army commander, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who seized power Tuesday in the bloodless coup, is a protégé of General Prem Tinsulrad, himself prime minister from 1980-88 and currently, as the chairman of the King's Privy Council, the King's most important advisor. There had been a war of words between Prem and Thaksin for several years, culminating in a small bomb being detonated outside of Prem's home near the palace in early 2006. It is clear that the coup had the backing of the crown, which has given it a veneer of legitimacy, though Sonthi denies that the crown was involved and insists that the overthrow was his decision alone.

The Deal that Broke the Government

Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in February 2005 won the election by the largest margin ever in Thai history. Not only was Thaksin the first prime minister in over a decade to serve a whole term, he was also the first one to win re-election. The TRT's dominance was so near total that parliament, for all intents and purposes, was irrelevant.  Thaksin rose to power in 2000 on a xenophobic populist platform, calling for an end to foreign domination of the Thai economy. His position seemed unassailable.

Then Thaksin, despite his nationalist platform, sold his family's corporation (the largest telecommunication company) to Thamasek, the Singapore government's holding company. It was not just the hypocrisy of the sale of a vital national asset that offended many Thais. No taxes were paid on the nearly $2 billion in profits.

The middle class was galled. Street protests broke out. Thaksin decided to quash dissent by dissolving parliament and winning a new popular mandate in polls held on April 2. The opposition, led by the Democrat Party, successfully boycotted the polls, following Thaksin's refusal to implement political reforms. Though Thaksin's TRT won a plurality of votes, in many districts their candidates did not win more than the 20 percent of votes needed to be elected. A re-election was held, but again the boycott was effective. The Supreme Court in the mean time invalidated the entire election saying that it was held too soon. A new election was scheduled for October 15, but that too was to be delayed, given controversy surrounding new election commissioners.

Following the April election, Thaksin announced that he would not have a position in the next government and was taking a "vacation from politics." He left the caretaker government in the hands of Chidchai Vanasatidya, his most trusted lieutenant. Thaksin quietly returned to government with very little public outcry in May 2006. Since then he headed the caretaker government without parliamentary checks. Though there were three different court cases winding their way through the legal system that could have impacted the future of Thaksin and several other key politicians, he was acquitted a second time the day before the coup.

In the Aftermath