Thailand's great leap backward


Published September 19, 2006 11:41PM (EDT)

"It is, pardon me, a mess. It is irrational." So spoke Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in April, responding to pleas that he appoint a new prime minister by fiat to resolve the ongoing political crisis that has been raging around Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for the past year. But that was six months ago. Today, in the wake of confusing reports of a military coup against Thaksin, the king's words take on even more resonance.

I am no fan of Thaksin, but I still find this news deeply distressing. By my count, this would be the 18th coup that Thailand has endured since 1932. But there was good reason to believe that the mass demonstrations in 1991-92 that brought down the last military government to seize power in Thailand were a sign that Thailand had gone through a key milestone on the arduous road to a mature and stable democracy. The people were sick and tired of generals imposing their will on the nation whenever politicians did something of which they did not approve. During the 1980s, I visited Thailand a half dozen times, and I can well remember the thrill when the dramatic events of 1992 played out. Like Taiwan and South Korea, Thailand seemed to be another example of a society that was finding solid footing -- achieving both economic growth and political stability. In the aftermath of the disappointment of Tiananmen in 1989, Thailand offered a more hopeful path forward.

It's hard to know what exactly is going on in Bangkok right now and it would be foolish to make any predictions. But it is somewhat alarming to read that at midnight the king agreed to receive the coup leaders in a royal audience. In 1992 the king was widely credited with assisting in the transition to democracy. If he has given tacit approval to this coup, it is both a sign of just how serious political tensions had become in the country, and a massive step backward.

UPDATE: A reader, who unfortunately declined to sign his or her name, contributes an intriguing, nuanced, analysis of the events leading up to the coup.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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