Many Bangkokians went out the next morning to give flowers to soldiers.

Sep 21st 2006

MILITARY coups, like wars, are easy to start but hard to end. They mostly begin rather as Thailand’s did this week: at night, with tanks on the streets of the capital, television stations surrounded, programming suddenly replaced with martial music and, in the light of morning, a promise from a grim-faced general that power has been seized only temporarily and that democracy will soon be restored, once the constitution has been suitably adjusted.

Thailand was certainly no paragon of democracy before Tuesday night. Its prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was accused of many sins, from corruption and nepotism to gross incompetence in his prosecution of the fight against Muslim insurgents. He was lambasted for his dominance of the airwaves through his communications group, Shin Corp—and then attacked for hugely enriching himself by selling it to Singapore.

Mr Thaksin was particularly hated by urban Thais because of his open-handed courting of the rural vote, using debt-forgiveness and expensive subsidies for health care and rural development. To many, this was “vote-buying”, though it never really went further than canny populism. He had won a thumping election victory in 2001 on the back of such promises. He won again in 2005, and would presumably have won a third time, in the snap election he called in April 2006, had the opposition not boycotted the poll, in effect invalidating the vote. Faced with a hollow victory and mass protests, Mr Thaksin briefly stepped down.

The anti-Thaksin demonstrators who had been blocking Bangkok streets for months hailed this as a huge victory for democracy, claiming to have served the greater good by achieving on the streets what they could not manage at the ballot box. What they failed to see, however, is that although getting rid of Mr Thaksin was no bad thing, their way of doing it struck a deep blow at a still fragile political system. Thailand has endured some 18 coups since the 1930s and been dominated by the armed forces for much of the post-war period. So it was still learning to live with its first fully democratic constitution, introduced in 1997. That constitution has now been suspended, pending revision.

Long poorly governed, Thailand has been adrift since the failed April election. The king gloomily gave warning at the time that the political impasse could see Thailand “sink more than 4,000 metres beneath the sea. Irretrievable.” Mr Thaksin returned to the prime minister’s office to run the country as caretaker until a fresh election could be held. By all accounts, he has clashed repeatedly with senior army officers, riling them by trying to install his own loyalists in senior posts. Still, new election commissioners had been appointed earlier this month (the last lot had been arrested), and there seemed some prospect of holding fresh elections in November. The snag, of course, was that Mr Thaksin’s party might very well have won them. The anti-Thaksin demonstrators, buoyed by their earlier success, presumably would not have accepted that. More chaos beckoned, and the army decided to act while Mr Thaksin was away at the United Nations in New York.

From The Economist print Edition

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