dr ngo has graciously agreed to let me front-page his comment on Thailand from Charles' thread. Everything after this point is his -- and you should be grateful for that, since he knows something about Thailand, and I don't. Or didn't, until I read this.
Desultory Musings on the Thai Coup of 2006
OK, here I am. Have skimmed through many of the useful links provided by CB (and by Spartikus - the Manthorpe piece is nice, though the headline may be misleading, as it omits an "it seems" that Manthorpe carefully inserted in the text) I assume that anyone who wants to can get up to speed fairly quickly with what is known (and still not known). So my role, as I see it, is to provide a bit of perspective.
- First, the disclaimers. It's NOT about Islam. It's NOT about us.
Although there is an Islamic insurgency in the far south of Thailand, it is physically and culturally removed from the center of action, and there's no likelihood whatsoever that this is any kind of Islamic plot (though Sondhi is a Muslim, he's from Bangkok, not the south). The parallel that jumps to my mind is the "Irish Question" in 19th-century Britain. Governments might fall over their inability to resolve the "IQ" (including Gladstone's once, IIRC), but there was never an Irish threat to England itself. So with Bangkok and its Muslim south.
We can expect almost no change in Thai-US relations, regardless of the outcome of this event, unless we decide to make an issue of it. The Thai are, over the past century and a half or so, the world's finest practitioners of "bending to the prevailing wind" (e.g., they started WWII on Japan's side and ended it with a pro-Allied government - along the way they declared war on the USA, but never delivered the declaration!), and no change of government in modern history has resulted in a significant change in foreign policy.
- So, what IS it about? You'll see a number of theories in the links, most of them equally plausible (or not) at this stage. It's urban (Sondhi, the middle class) against rural (Thaksin, the farmers). It's personal (Thaksin was trying to fire Sondhi). It's for reform OR against reform, depending on the valence you give "reform." It's all of the above, or none of the above. I don't know, but ...
... as a historian, I tend to see it as an interesting overlap of the three major political themes of the past century or so: monarchy, the military, and democracy. Let me take them up in reverse order:
Democracy, in a functional (rather than ritual) sense, is relatively new in Thailand, though lip-service has been paid to it since the 1930s. Except for a brief period between 1973 and 1976 (ended by a military coup), the Thai had no really free elections until the early 1990s. Over the past 15 years, however, they've gotten into democracy in a big way, with numerous meaningful elections AND with the problems associated with such elections, including outright cheating, attempts to "buy" votes either directly (for cash) or for electoral promises, manipulation of the media, &c. I think we're all familiar with these.
Thaksin, the most successful politician of this era, has been frequently compared with Italy's Berlusconi, which seems apt - parlaying a communications empire with populist politics to seize and hold political power. The (rural) masses have been willing to forgive his indiscretions, to judge by election results. But his selling off his largest holding (for $1.9 billion) to a foreign firm (Singapore's Temasek) and managing to avoid taxes on the sale may have pushed the balance against him.
Unlike Italy and most of the West, the military has also played a strong political role in the recent past. They seized power (from the absolute monarchy) in 1932, and continued to hold it, directly or indirectly, for most of the next sixty years. There were some "civilian" governments during that period, but it was clear that they served only as long as the military let them. Coups were abundant (17-18 of them, about half successful), but generally bloodless; a dictator would wake up in the morning, see the tanks surrounding the palace, and be allowed to proceed to the airport, where he could fly off and spend as much as he had managed to salt away while it was his "turn" to rule. That's one reason the Thai public seems relatively blase about this whole thing - they're like Filipinos facing yet another typhoon, or Angelenos an earthquake.
The king is the real wild card in this situation. The absolute monarchy lasted until 1932, and the greatest heroes in Thai history are all kings (led by Chulalongkorn, 1868-1910, grandfather of the current monarch). When the military took over in 1932, they reduced the monarchy to a limited one - roughly comparable to the British in constitutional power - and for twenty years or so the kings had little to say or do. But starting in the 1950s the military started building up the symbolic role of the monarchy again, taking advantage of the fact that young King Bhumibol (b. 1927; r. 1946-present!) was sincere and likeable; the military positioned itself as the protector of King, Country, and Religion (Buddhism).
Over the past half-century, the king has increased in personal* prestige and (therefore) indirect power until it can reasonably be said that no political solution to any crisis is possible without his imprimatur. He still tends to stay in the background, but when he emerges, people pay attention: the last coup (1992) ended when the king scolded the general on TV! The current coup leaders all claim loyalty to the king - which of course they would (as would Thaksin, I'm sure) - and "it seems" that the king is going along with the coup, though he has not given it any kind of public blessing yet. We may never know whether he knew of it in advance or simply approved of it after the fact (it was well known that he disliked Thaksin), but the result is the same, if it appears to the public that he supports it.
*This is very much a personal prestige that Bhumibol has, and it is questionable how much of it will carry over to his heir, whoever s/he may be.
The king has a reputation for being honest, conservative (with a small "c" = move cautiously forward, not leap violently backward), and in favor of Good Things like the environment and democracy. It seems very likely that, even if the coup leaders had not promised to turn the country over to a new government in two weeks (?!), they would have to be seen to be on track toward civilianizing, if not democratizing, the country very soon if they were not to lose the royal and public support they apparently have at the moment.
So, what it looks like now (= 5pm Wednesday, EDT) is that Thaksin is out, the coup is on, there will be little violence, a new government will be appointed shortly, and there will be business as before ...
... the next election. From a pro-coup standpoint, the problem is that they need to have elections to restore democratic legitimacy BUT they don't have any obvious way to beat the proven power of Thaksin's vote-getting machine (centered on the TRT: "Thai Love Thai" party). Stay tuned.