Thai coup in hot soup
A slow, steaming revolution is brewing in thailand against the big- bully military coup. and this can turn out to be real tasty dish
Satya Sagar Bangkok
It is a staple dish you will not find in any recipe book on Thailand’s famous cuisine. Yet, for most connoisseurs of modern Thai history, a ‘coup in hot ‘n spicy soup’ is always an eagerly awaited meal.
Less than a month after the Thai military took power by ousting the government of Premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a ‘happy’, bloodless coup, all indications are this favourite national delicacy is being cooked once again. Stirring the pot is a diverse range of actors, from pro-democracy student activists and academics to taxi drivers and rural supporters of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. Discontent over imposition of martial law, the composition of the new ‘handpicked’ National Assembly and contradictory policies introduced by the new regime are providing the heat required to complete the cooking process.
And all this is still happening on a slow, burning fire. But, surprisingly and predictably, once in a while, the flames leap upward.
On October 1, 2006, as soldiers posted on a key Bangkok thoroughfare following the coup watched with disbelief, one of the city’s ubiquitous taxis broke through their check post and rammed into a tank stationed there. Both sides of the taxi were sprayed with messages in black reading “the destroyers of the country”, and “martyr” was written on the taxi’s boot.
Later, talking to reporters, Nuamthong Praiwan, the 60-year-old taxi driver, who broke three ribs in the high-speed crash and was put on a respirator, said, “I will do it again if I get another chance.”
To understand the poignancy of this suicidal act of defiance one has to consider that displays of such extreme passion, even on personal issues, let alone political ones, are rare in Thailand. Sustaining physical injury deliberately for a cause is quite out of the question normally.
But these are not normal times in the country and that Nuamthong chose to do what he did is just one small indication of the simmering social volcano the country is sitting on— never mind the guns ‘n roses images flashed around by the global media. Even more ominously, in some districts of northern and north-eastern Thailand, strongholds of the Thai Rak Thai, there have been reports of several state-run schools ‘mysteriously’ burning down. Nobody has claimed responsibility, but the arson is believed to be the work of Thaksin’s supporters or simply of those who have bad memories of the Thai military’s long history of misrule.
Protests against the coup, though not as dramatic as ramming a taxi into a tank or schools on fire, have also been steadily picking up steam among the Thai intelligentsia. In Bangkok, student protestors demanding civil and political freedom, burnt a copy of the new interim charter announced by the coup-makers in place of the popularly framed 1997 Constitution. The protest was the fifth by the group since the coup and defiantly staged outside the headquarters of the Thai Army. Under martial law, political assemblies of more than five people are banned in Thailand.
“The military dumped the Constitution drafted by the people, so we are burning the charter issued undemocratically by them,” Chotisak On-soong, of the Students Activities Information Resource Group, told the media. A dozen labour representatives showed up later in black clothing to denounce the military. The Council for Media Reform (CMR), a platform of academics, journalists and activists who fought for greater media freedom under the previous Thaksin regime, also held a protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, demanding restoration of the 1997 Constitution. The CMR has criticised the presence of military ‘monitors’ at TV stations, imposed after the coup, and the resulting climate of fear among journalists.
There is diversity of motives among those opposed to the coup, though what binds them all is clear rejection of dictatorship in any form as a ‘solution’ to the problems of a budding electoral democracy. Many of them were strong critics of Thaksin, but now feel the coup, justified by its backers in the name of preventing ‘social divisions’ and ‘restoring democracy’, is a throwback to the dark old days from Thailand’s authoritarian past.
The new interim charter imposed by the military does not provide for accountability of the new regime to any independent body, let alone the general public. The coup-makers have unilaterally announced several decrees that have a big impact on the freedoms of the population. Coup orders, like the ban on any political gathering with more than five participants, have become law without any debate and can be undone only by fresh legislation passed by a future parliament. The interim charter and the decrees issued by the junta will remain in place for another year, at the end of which the coup-makers have promised to hold national elections.
The 1997 Constitution, written with wide public participation, is Thailand’s most democratic charter to date (the country has had 17 Constitutions in seven decades and is now preparing to write the 18th). Among other progressive clauses, it allowed the public to recall members of parliament, initiate impeachment of bureaucrats, ministers and even officials of the Supreme Court. It set up a variety of institutions that were supposed to provide independent oversight of government functioning, with substantial powers to make corrections. There are some serious flaws with the 1997 Constitution, an important one being the disbarring of candidates without a university graduate degree from becoming members of parliament. In a country where majority lives in the countryside and only a privileged few have the means of going to college, the clause gives away the deep bias that the ‘liberals’ had against ordinary ‘illiterate’ folk. (The new government of retired General Surayud Chulanont and the 250-member National Assembly has hardly any representation from among rural Thais or urban workers and is, instead, packed with military men and bureaucrats.)
Another problem with the 1997 Constitution is it has not taken into account the possibility of the emergence of a powerful political party with a charismatic leader who could dominate all democratic institutions. The rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2000 created precisely such a situation, unprecedented in the fragmented political scenario.
Thaksin, with full domination of both parliament and senate, took full advantage by packing all independent institutions with his people. He did some ‘unconstitutional’ things because those interpreting the text were often under his government’s influence.
Despite such loopholes, the 1997 Constitution, many activists in Thailand feel, can be the only basis for any new Constitution that the military rulers may have in mind. The prospects of getting anything even like the old one, however, appear remote. Anyone surveying the spectrum of political parties can easily see that every one of them is a Right-of-Centre front playing for one business lobby or the other. This has led to an obvious imbalance in the country’s electoral democracy, which stands on just one – right-leg - and falls down at the slightest political or social provocation.
A popular Left party — even garden-variety social democrats — openly taking up issues of the rural and urban poor, youth, women and workers, will not only provide a much-needed counterweight to the forces of conservatism but also put Thai democracy on a much stronger foundation. Thailand can learn a lot from the South Korean struggle against authoritarian rule over the past three decades. However anything ‘Left’ is still a sensitive subject.
Thailand’s first prime minister, Pridi Banomyong, was ousted by the Thai
military way back in the late 1930s for advocating an allegedly ‘communist’ economic policy of land reforms and state planning. Thailand did have a communist party, like many other countries in the region, but it turned into low-key armed insurgency in the early 1950s after being banned. The threat of a ‘communist takeover’ has been a bogey for the Thai military and conservatives to murder their opponents, suspend democratic rights and thereby stay in power.
In October 1976, a Right-wing coup killed hundreds of students accusing them of being ‘Marxists’, an event that, ironically, succeeded in pushing them into the arms of the underground Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which till then had limited presence among the urban intelligentsia. The CPT, however, collapsed in the late 1970s under the weight of its own contradictions, a pro-China organisation operating from pro-Vietnam Laos.
Interestingly, the lack of a functioning Left party has not meant the complete absence of a Left agenda. For, what Thailand got in the absence of an organised Left is what can only be called a ‘dispersed’ Left. There are former Left activists, in academia, in the media, among artists and in the dozens of NGOs that have mushroomed in the last two decades. Many of them are doing outstanding and creative work to create greater democratic space.
There are Left-wingers in mainstream political parties also, either as pure opportunists or misguidedly trying to ‘manipulate’ the system for public good. Several former student radicals were among the advisers driving Thaksin’s populist schemes, the success of which shows the need for organisations that take up issues of the poor. (The new military- appointed government, in an interesting imitation of Thaksin’s much-criticised ‘populism’, has announced free healthcare.)
A new Left party in Thailand need not be a copy of anything that existed in the past but one based on a better reading of the social, economic, and very importantly, cultural setting of the country. Maybe, it could even be something like what the Buddha, the world’s best known social revolutionary before Jesus Christ, would have set up if he were around in Thailand (He is certainly missing from the local monasteries!).
Indeed, as public opposition to the Thai military grows over the next year and its illegitimate new regime dissolves into a slow, half-cooked brew, some of Thailand’s visionary activists can work on making sure it turns, with the right ingredients and temperature, into a very tasty Thai dish. Because this coup in Bangkok, surely, is real recipe for hot, steaming soup.
The writer is a video-maker based in New Delhi. He spent over a decade in Thailand during the 1990s.