Seven Questions: The Future of Thailand

Will the Thai generals who led a coup last week revert the country to democracy or consolidate their absolute control in a police state? To find out, FP spoke with John Brandon of the Asia Foundation about what the coup means for the generals, the Muslim insurgency in the south, and the stability of the region.

FOREIGN POLICY: The military coup in Thailand has been described as a necessary intervention because of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatras alleged abuses of power. Why did the coup happen now?

FOREIGN POLICY: The military coup in Thailand has been described as a necessary intervention because of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatras alleged abuses of power. Why did the coup happen now?

John Brandon: Most people in Bangkok did not like Prime Minister Thaksin and his support is weak [in the countrys urban areas]. But if an election were held last week, Thaksin would have won, largely because he has very strong support in rural areas. His policies were populist and pro-poor, and among poor farmers and workers, his programs and his personal appeal resonated greatly, more so than any other politician in the country.

This coup is regrettable because it seemed to be the only alternative that Thailand had. It is not a positive development in Thailands efforts to become a strong democracy. Thailand was recently the most vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia. This coup is a major hiccup. The military government has said it is going to cede power to an interim civilian government, rewrite the constitution, and then hold democratic elections over 13 months. Thats a very ambitious timetable.

FP: So, are the military councils intentions genuine?

JB: I think theres a big difference between this coup and prior coups in Thailand. Its the first coup thats taken place in 15 years, but its also the first coup that has taken place in the era of globalization. Thailand is so integrated into the global economy today that the military does not have the managerial skills to adequately manage the economy. Civil society is much stronger. Much of the elite may have felt that the coup was unfortunately necessary to get Thailand back on track, but that doesnt mean they want the military to stay in power. If the military leaders drag their feet with reforms, people will protest in the streets against them. They wont be handing them flowers.

FP: The military council has announced a corruption inquiry into Thaksin and his associates. What will they find?

JB: Corruption has been endemic in Thailand for decades. It is unfair to say that Thaksin has been an extraordinarily corrupt figure who broke the government. That said, Thaksin emasculated the commissions that were meant to investigate corruption. He got rid of the people who were making serious enquiries, and replaced them with yes men. I would like to give Thaksin and his associates the benefit of the doubt. But there seems to be enough smoke to make it valid for the Thai government to investigate.

FP: Was the insurgency in the south a factor in the coup? And what happens with the insurgency now?

JB: [The insurgency] had some bearing on the coup. Everyone except Thaksin and his cronies thought the [response to the insurgency] has been handled badly. A Muslim separatist said the other day that he thought the coup was a good thing, and I think that’s because Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the head of the military council who led the coup, is a Thai Muslim from the south. [The insurgents] feel that he will be able to work with Muslim insurgents in the south and create a strategy that promotes peace and security.

FP: Who are the potential successors as prime minister?

JB: Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, the former head of the World Trade Organization, is considered a leading contender. He is internationally respected. His appointment would give a lot of confidence to international investors. It would help shore up the economy, which has become very weak since the tsunami. Another leading contender is retired Gen. Surayud Chulanont, a well-respected military man. But he is nonetheless a military man, and I think his appointment would send a less-than-stellar message not only to Thais but to the rest of the world.

FP: What does the coup mean for the stability of the region?

JB: If you look at Thailands immediate neighbors like Burma, which is one of the most oppressive governments on the face of the Earth, I imagine its leaders must be saying that if democracy doesnt work in Thailandwhere the population isnt very diverse (Burma, by comparison, is 40 percent ethnic minorities)the coup just further justifies their iron grip on power. Its a similar situation for Cambodia and Vietnam.

FP: Will Thakisin return to Thailand?

JB: Thaksin looks finished. But I wouldnt rule out the ability of a man with $2 billion to make a comeback.

John Brandon is director of international relations at the Asia Foundation.

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