Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Impeccable Timing; Peccable Judgement

Wonderful timing: three days before my planned holiday in Thailand, the military decide to pull off a coup there after 15 years of relatively stable democracy. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how things will work out, even whether the whole of the army is behind it or only a disaffected faction. Anyway, so far it looks as if, in true Thai fashion, tourism will not be significantly disrupted (and as Spike has noted, may even benefit from the lifting of some of the Thaksin government's more puritanical restrictions, like 1 am bar closing). The falling baht, as investors get nervous, can't hurt tourism either.

There are certainly plenty of reasons why Thaksin should be kicked out: quite apart from the doubtful business dealings and tax evasion which have enormously enriched his family, there is his egregious violations of human rights, like his complicity in the shooting without trial of alleged drug dealers by the police; his contribution to George Bush's cowboy adventures in the Middle East by sending Thai troops (now withdrawn) to join the illegal war in Iraq (oops, I initially mistyped this as Iran - that's next month); and his grossly insensitive mishandling of Muslim grievances in the southern provinces, which has inflamed low key unrest into open warfare, as seen in the Hatyai bombing.

But there are also reasons why all my Thai friends vote for Thaksin: he has introduced a low cost medical scheme for the poor, improved roads and rural communications, and encouraged the development of village industries. Not surprisingly, these positive measures have ensured him an overwhelming share of the rural vote.

Two aspects of the coup are surprising: firstly, why go to all this effort to get rid of Thaksin now, when he is only caretaker PM following the fiasco of the last election in April, and will face a fresh election in a few weeks - one he may well lose anyway, especially if the Muslim insurgents in the south spread their bombing campaign to the rest of the country?

More disturbing are the rumours that the King may have given his support to the coup move. In his long and sometimes tumultuous reign King Bhumibol has hardly put a foot wrong - no monarch in the world is more respected by his people - and the statements from the coup leaders predictably asserted their loyalty to him. But he has always been careful to stay well above the murky details of Thai politics, enabling him to knock heads together as a neutral arbiter when things seem to be getting out of hand.

If it is true (and I stress that the rumours are currently unconfirmed) that he supported the coup, even if only tacitly, this would be a very dangerous development. Involvement in overthrowing the Prime Minister they regard as a great benefactor could seriously dilute the reverence in which the King (and the monarchy as an institution) is held by the rural poor, leaving the country less stable in the longer term. One need only look at Nepal to see how quickly a monarchy can lose popular support. This could be the first sign that advancing age is clouding the Thai monarch's once impeccable judgement.

Of course, I wouldn't risk saying this in Thailand!

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