Thailand has endured 18 military coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, as it happened, following a coup. Those days seemed to be over after the last coup, in 1991, when the general who led it was ousted the next year.
But to the dismay of friends such as the United States, Japan and Australia, Thailand has undergone yet another coup, with the military ousting popularly elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was in New York for a speech to the United Nations.
For all the turmoil, the Thai state itself has been remarkably stable thanks to the monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the throne since 1950, is the world’s longest-serving head of state and wildly popular with his subjects. And it seems clear this coup was launched with his tacit approval.
Thaksin has won three overwhelming victories at the polls, 2001, 2005 and last April. The April win was annulled by the courts, again after what seems to have been a nod from the king. He was to stand for election again in November and very well might have won.
Thaksin, a telecom billionaire, was enormously popular with the rural poor, considerably less so with the middle class, who complained of his corruption, abuse of power and meddling in such institutions as the free press, the courts and the military. The discontent had started to take to the streets.
The bloodless coup was a classic of its type: Wait until the target was out of the country; quickly surround government buildings with tanks; and take to the airwaves to ask the people to remain calm and reassure them that everything would remain normal.
It was not promising that the coup leader, army chief Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, immediately “terminated” the Parliament, cabinet and court charged with interpreting the 1997 constitution.
Power instead will be held by a “council of administrative reform” that is to begin work on a new constitution and begin planning for a new national election. A military spokesman has promised that election will take place “as soon as possible.”
The king should hold his military to that promise.