Downfall of a Thai free trader

Are there lessons for Taiwan and China from the Thailand coup?

Published September 25, 2006 4:17PM (EDT)

The coup in Thailand has disappeared from the pages of the offline press, but the blogosphere continues to chug along, unearthing tidbits here and there that provide insight. In Taiwan, where an ongoing showdown between President Chen Shuibian and elements of that country's elite has some looking over their shoulders at Thailand and wondering if they're next, blogger Michael Turton digs up an informative article in the Far Eastern Economic Review published just before the coup.

Review deputy editor Culum Murphy provides an excellent foundation for understanding the coup. Among other interesting points, he notes that both Prime Minister Thaksin and King Bhumibol share the devoted allegiance of the same sector of the country's population -- the rural poor. So even though Thaksin's ouster is sure to be unpopular in the countryside, the fact that the King has effectively endorsed the coup means there is unlikely to be any significant resistance, in the short or long term. Equally intriguing is the explanation of how the King and Thaksin disagreed on the appropriate economic strategy for improving the livelihood of the rural poor. Thaksin is described as a free trader flaunting "an |bercapitalist and pro-globalization stance." The King is portrayed as more of a slow-growth "Buddhist economist," stressing self-sufficiency and moderation.

Unlike some of my readers, I don't think that the mere fact that Thaksin was pro-free trade justifies a military coup against him, but the more one learns about the last year of Thai politics, the less recent events seem surprising.

Murphy's analysis also serves as a cautionary warning to those who would make predictions, no matter how well-informed. To wit: "To be sure, a military intervention to oust Mr. Thaksin is always a possibility, although some -- but not all -- analysts agree that this seems unlikely at this point. Those with less sanguine views predict that there will be no compromise between the two, and say that this game will produce only one winner and one loser. If this turns out to be the case, then the next weeks and months could see bloody confrontation on the streets of Bangkok and throughout the kingdom."

The less sanguine turn out to be the more correct, but so far, the streets have been utterly free of blood. Which probably explains the lack of press coverage. If it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead.

And how about this for a depressingly cynical take on the coup from a mainland Chinese perspective: The invaluable folks who run U.C. Berkeley's China Digital Times translated excerpts from a debate at a Chinese Communist Party school in which one side dismissed the likelihood of a Thai-style coup in China. In Thailand, ran the argument, resentment by the urban elites at Thaksin's corruption fueled the coup. But in China, corruption is widespread everywhere among the privileged. So those with the power to do anything about it are all part of the problem.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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