Today is September 21, and the usual unthinking people will be falling over themselves to commemorate Martial Law today. But the anniversary isn’t today, it’s two days from now, Saturday, September 23.
Pete Lacaba takes a cue from his book, Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, his coverage of the First Quarter Storm, and pens a reflection, Days of paranoia, nights of unease.
Some sober and sobering news and views on the Thailand coup. Let’s dismiss the obvious -the Philippine government is simply protesting too much (as Ellen Tordesillas puts it). The armed forces made its choice, on February of this year; and it sealed the pact with its activities against dissidents in the provinces.
The Inquirer editorial condemns the coup, but suggests the reasons it took place and why it does offer up a cautionary tale for Filipinos. The Arab News editorial focuses on human rights questions and the dangers inherent in a resumption, by the military, of its political role. Juan Mercado says the coup provides an “enduring lesson” -and that is, the king. An Associated Press story looks into the involvement of the Thai king in the coup (I heard the Philippine ambassador to Thailand vehemently deny this possibility on Dong Puno’s show last night). There’s an interesting commentary that Irish Pennants points to (from The Australian), saying any coup is bad but this one may be for the better:
Under his Government, corruption was widespread. More particularly, Thaksin had deeply affronted the citizens of Bangkok by the way he sold his family firm, Shin Corp, to a Singapore Government-controlled company in a multibillion-dollar transaction. There is no suggestion that the Singapore Government, or the Singapore corporation involved, have done anything wrong. Nor has any illegality been proved about the transaction itself. The transaction was, however, highly irregular and highly advantageous to Thaksin.
Whatever the technicalities of the transaction prove to be, it looked like a massive conflict of interest for a prime minister to be acting this way.
There is a fundamental split in Thai society between Bangkok, which is a sophisticated city, and the countryside, where policy matters less in determining election results than regional affiliation and, at times, even vote-buying practices.
There is an old saying that Thai governments are made in the countryside and unmade in Bangkok. This is what happened to Thaksin. In the end, he totally lost the respect of the citizens of Bangkok, even though he maintained the support of the countryside. As a result, in April this year there were huge anti-Thaksin demonstrations. Finally, even the King, the revered and much-loved Bhumibol Adulyadej, intervened to bring the earlier crisis to a close.
In the countryside, especially the north, the citizens are undoubtedly more fond of their King than their Prime Minister. But the King tries to be as neutral as possible in Thai politics, only intervening when absolutely necessary. The signals of disapproval that he sent out about Thaksin therefore were subtle and restrained. They were clear enough in Bangkok, but less clear in the countryside.
In any event, it became impossible for Thaksin to continue. Yet, analysts say, he may not have wanted to formally step down from the position of Prime Minister because of what a future Thai government might decide to do about – and with – the proceeds of the sale of Shin Corp. Other Thaksin family assets may also be under threat.
Thaksin had also fatally fallen out with the military. This was over two issues. One was his determination to appoint his own loyalists to senior positions within the military in this year’s round of promotions.
This, of course, is the right of a democratic government. But, given how much corruption flourished under Thaksin’s Government, there was good reason to fear what the consequences of these appointments might be.
Although the promotions round was the main cause of the alienation of the military, there was another issue of much greater importance. Thaksin has made a spectacular mess of handling the Islamist insurgency gripping the southern provinces of Thailand. This insurgency is exceptionally shadowy and difficult to understand but informed sources suggest that since the beginning of 2004 about 1700 people have died in the conflict…
Notwithstanding last weekend’s bombings, it is still believed that the Muslim terrorists of southern Thailand are not targeting Westerners, are not integrating their struggle into global jihadism and are not moving to targets elsewhere in Thailand – such as Bangkok or Phuket – that could severely damage the Thai economy.
The Thai military had a good handle on all this until a few years ago when Thaksin, in an act of wilful stupidity, abolished the mechanisms of local consultation that had built up over many years, when the conflict had subsided to much lower levels of violence.
The Thai army, led by General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin- coincidentally a Muslim – wants to try to re-create a political dialogue with the insurgents and try to address the legitimate grievances that the insurgents have exploited. Thaksin, in contrast, was determined to pursue a gung-ho, force and only force approach that was ineffective and was making things worse.
This may have been just arrogance on the part of Thaksin and his advisers, although some analysts speculate that it was a way of distracting attention from his own problems. In any event, it was exceptionally dangerous.
The Thai military has promised it will soon have new elections and a return to full democracy. Presumably Thaksin will not be allowed to contest these elections. The military has some support and advice from the King’s advisers on the Privy Council. Most important, the King has said nothing against the army.
The Bangkok public is likely to be ambivalent about this: glad to be rid of Thaksin, unhappy at military rule, probably willing to allow the interim government enough legitimacy to oversee a transition to a new democratic dispensation.
No democrat can support a military coup but Thai coups are the gentlest in the world, and this one may conceivably provide a path to something better.
Rep. Teddy Locsin made a devastating privilege speech titled One Night in Bangkok:
Not so long ago, and repeatedly, Mr. Speaker, you held up Thaksin Shinawatra as a model of the ideal parliamentary leader who best exemplifies the superior advantages of the parliamentary over the presidential system of government. This, in spite of the fact that Thaksin became a multibillionaire, with a media and manufacturing empire, on his income as a military officer and later as a member of parliament. Indeed, on the strength of those incomes he was able to purchase the prime ministership of Thailand along with the rest of the government. His sister treated the Thai air force like her own private jet service. Thaksin only forgot to buy the Thai Supreme Court and, of course, he could not buy the King, though he did suggest marginalizing the sovereign. Those were his mistakes.
Not so long ago, and repeatedly, Mr. Speaker, you held up the parliamentary system as the most conducive to political stability.
And you know what, Mr. Speaker, you are still right. It is the most conducive to political stability, to stasis, to paralysis and to despair — and violence.
That is why, this morning, in the witching hours after midnight, patriotic elements of the Thai armed forces swept into the capital, shut down all media and communications facilities, seized key government buildings, took over the government and abolished the Constitution.
You see, Mr. Speaker, the advantage of a parliamentary system is also its curse. It is indeed stable — too stable.
Once a person and his party take over a parliamentary government, and its vast resources, it is well nigh impossible to dislodge them and for another group to take their place.
Forget about reforming from within the government in place — you are either coopted or sidelined.
And that is why patriotic elements are compelled to step in from outside the Constitution and effect the necessary change from outside its legal parameters.
You see, Mr. Speaker, stability is a greater curse than instability because stability entrenches power, while power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely — and absolute power, where institutional checks and balance have been abolished, corrupts permanently.
Indeed, parliamentary corruption once entrenched is impossible to correct or remove except by military or revolutionary surgery.
And the summa total of all this is to marginalize the sovereign. In Thailand, that means the good King. In the Philippines, that means the Filipino people.
The key to political stability, paradoxically, is not stability, Mr. Speaker, but, on the contrary, a sense of perpetual motion and perennial wide-open possibility, so that no one despairs of being permanently left out, every pig is able to hope for its moment at the trough, and every dog shall have his day. And the people can indeed repeat with hope the words of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett Butler left her: “Tomorrow is another day.”
As we stand on the threshold of Charter change, and a shift to the parliamentary system, let us, in the bowels of Christ, pause to consider what happened one night in Bangkok, as the song goes, and commit ourselves to drafting a Constitution that will foster not stability but changeability, not stasis but energy, not the assurance of the same old crooked faces but of fresh and new ones chosen by the people, well or ill, at every turn — all this to avoid despair and violence and generate hope and patience.
To tell the people that with a parliamentary system our politics will be so stable, that they will have to live with our faces in perpetuity, is to provoke them to the last extremity.
Locsin is not a presidentialist; he’s intellectually convinced of the virtues of a multi-party parliamentary system. He objects to a parliamentary system that will foster a one-party state and whose acceptance is premised on bribing officials to support it. So I suppose his speech is a last-ditch effort as the congressional steamroller heaves into action.