…[P]olitical events [like the recent Thai coup] create havoc not only for economic growth and interest rates, but also for big business deals.
The risk is less about financial contagion in Asia than a less tangible political funk that hovers over markets and discourages investors. Reading an economy is hard enough; having one’s finger on the pulse of every political zig and zag a world away is an entirely different thing.
…[G]eopolitics are a big risk to a region that is still figuring out how to compete with a booming China, which itself may be subject to political upheaval one day.
Voters and military leaders may have valid reasons to want to oust elected leaders. Doing so undemocratically can set economies back even more than questionable politicians can. It unnerves the same international investors that companies and governments are trying to impress.
Soldiers stand guard with unclipped rifles across from Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, built after a 1932 coup brought constitutional monarchy to Thailand, then known as Siam. That was the first of more than 20 that have occurred since that time, though the last coup in 1992 was supposed to be the last since the popular demand for democracy had grown so strong since an uprising in 1973 made them impossible to ignore.
The soldiers gladly allowed us to photograph them. In fact, they’ve been ordered to “keep smiling” and stay friendly as part of the effort to put a positive face on this bloodless coup, which has astonishingly enough been carried out in the name of democracy (a concession that speaks to the high expectations among the public to maintain the democratic institution that has built up over the last 15 years). Still, after four days of ingratiating themselves to the public, including scores of foreign tourists such as myself, the soldiers have started to look a little less than eager to enlighten us on the democratizing power of military force:
Now, don’t get me wrong – the dynamics of this coup d’etat are not as simple as elected government good, military coup bad, as writers for the Washington Post might have you believe. But for me, as someone whose idea of democracy is primarily a) Democrats vs. Republicans, and secondarily b) Mori Faction vs. ex-Tanaka Faction battling to please their bureaucrat overlords, the very likely explanation that Thaksin was planning a coup of his own and that the military’s commitment to democracy far exceeds that of the corrupt Thaksin’s (as indicated by Mango Sauce) is confusing. But what I do know that the political stability since the early 90s was a humongous boon for Thailand, and getting things back on track will be key if Thailand wants to maintain its status as the most developed major nation in SE Asia.
In the meantime, ironic scenes such as the one in the first picture will no doubt abound as long as this junta lasts. At least the Bangkok Post hasn’t lost its loopy sense of humor:
Two kinds of power
Armoured tanks can both destroy buildings and enchant children
People crowd the Royal Plaza to catch a glimpse of the tanks stationed there to keep the peace on orders of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy.
A vendor is about to hand a balloon to a young buyer at the Royal Plaza yesterday.
Got this in my inbox today. It pretty much describes the situation on the ground… which is to say that nothing much has changed since before the coup except some businesses were closed yesterday and the rest of the world seems completely shocked:
PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT – THAILAND
1. This Public Announcement is being issued to alert U.S. Citizens traveling to and residing in Thailand to the recent military coup in Thailand. This Public Announcement expires December 19.
2. On September 19 a military group calling itself the Council for Democratic Reform Under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) seized control of the Thai government and declared martial law. The CDRM banned any political gathering of more than five persons. The CDRM also banned the hoarding of goods or the increasing of the price of goods of any kind. The CDRM announced it will appoint a civilian government within two weeks as the first step to returning the country to democratic government.
3. The military deployed troops around key government facilities and other strategic locations, but there is little visible military presence elsewhere. There have been no indications or reports of any violence at this time.
4. Road traffic throughout the country continues to flow normally, although at reduced volumes. Public transportation is in service and all airports and most border crossings appear to be operating as normal. There have been reports of difficulty crossing the border with Burma at Mae Sot and Ranong. Americans who are scheduled to fly into or out of Thailand in the coming days are encouraged to contact their airline to ensure that the flight schedule has not been changed.
5. Given the fluidity of the current situation, the Department of State advises all American Citizens in Thailand to continue to monitor events closely, to avoid government installations and any large public gatherings and to exercise discretion when moving about.
And so on. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has managed to make the situation in Thailand somehow all about the United States:
Ideals and Realities Clash In Bush ‘Freedom Agenda’
At the United Nations lectern this week, President Bush hailed the spread of democracy. “From Beirut to Baghdad,” he said, “people are making the choice for freedom.” Yet even as he spoke, tanks were rolling through the streets of Bangkok as a military coup toppled the elected leader of Thailand, who at that moment was in New York for the U.N. session.
Should the president be held accountable if General Sonthi decides to overthrow the government? No kind of pressure or engagement by the US would have made any difference.
Oddly enough, Thaksin was seen by a lot of people as enough of a tyrant to warrant a coup, as a more sensible WP article illustrates:
“Democracy has won!” said an ecstatic Orathai Dechodomphan, 59, a tailor and Thaksin opponent who joined hundreds of people handing out roses to soldiers near the army headquarters. “Thaksin tried to steal power and did not respect our king. He never would have left on his own. What happened yesterday is our first step toward recovering a real democracy.”
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was seen by many here as having effectively allowed Thaksin’s removal, endorsed Sonthi, appointing him the official head of a new governing council charged with creating “peace in the country,” according to an announcement televised nationally.
Sonthi is close to the king, and there had been speculation that the monarch played a role in the coup. Sonthi dismissed those suggestions Wednesday, telling reporters: “I am the one who decided to stage the coup. No one supported me.”
It was an odd situation. The Prime Minister refused to step down in the face of massive “people power” protests that attempted to exert pressure on him outside the electoral system. They claimed that he had basically bought support among rural districts, making it impossible to simply vote him out. And when the king specifically told Thaksin to step down, he said he would only to reemerge as a “caretaker” prime minister between elections.
In such a quagmire, I can understand the Thai people’s relief to see a military that is seen as respecting the king put the conflict down without bloodshed. But Thai people can’t rely on benificent rulers forever. The king is old and his successor might not be as skilled at negotiating compromises that keep the country running smoothly, and there’s no guarantee that a future military coup will be so keen to talk the talk about democracy.
The Nation, an English-language Thai newspaper, stresses the cost of this coup:
Military intervention in a democratic system is always a “bad habit” that may stick if we once again allow ourselves the illusion that this will be the last time this dose of strong medicine is required to cure a serious disease.
Even if the first declaration from coup leaders sounded uncharacteristically apologetic (“Forgive us for the inconvenience caused”), once a political precedent of such proportion is set, it invariably stays. True democracy means never allowing coup leaders the excuse to stage their next exercise, even if they say they are sorry for their previous one.
In other words, if we can’t devise an effective system to get rid of a despot through constitutional means, that means we haven’t really graduated beyond the basics of democracy.
To end on a lighter note, there’s a Sgt. in the Army who has admitted involvement in the possibly staged assassination attempt on Thaksin about a month ago. How he can wear a knitted hat in freaking Thailand I don’t know, but he looks good in it nonetheless:
After months of urban protests against Prime Minister Thaksim, who somehow pulled off the feat of being both a rural populist and a pro-business billionaire, the Thai military has stepped in and declared an interim government. In typical Thai fashion, the military waited until the PM was out of the country, in New York to deliver an address to the UN General Assembly, and declared personal loyalty to the King.
You can read about it in the BBC, The Independent, or any other newspaper in the world. Try Google News for the latest.
Probably the best place to follow the story is the English language Thai daily, The Nation. As of right now, the other English Thai daily, The Bangkok Post, is offline.
I was just in Thailand myself a couple of weeks ago, and co-blogger Adam is currently there in his girlfriend’s apartment. He is not currently online, perhaps because the government has suspended Internet connections. This is just idle speculation though, I really have no idea what’s going on. While there is little reason to be concerned for his safety, today’s appointment to have his air conditioner repaired seems very unlikely to be kept. Coincidentally, his girlfriend is currently in Japan on a job interview, and was I believe scheduled to return to Bangkok today. Hopefully I’ll hear a report from one or both of them some time today.
Update: Adam is back online, and I was right about the air conditioner repairman not keeping his appointment.
I find this editorial from The Nation pretty interesting. Just a couple of weeks ago the paper was demanding Thaksim’s resignation and accusing him of engineering a false assassination attempt against himself to shore up his flagging support, but they are still firmly against military intervention to remove him from power.
Ideally, the likes of Thaksin should be rejected at the ballot box or through public pressure in the form of peaceful protests. The problem is most people did not believe both options available to them would succeed in removing him from power. To many people the military coup against Thaksin may be a necessary evil.
But make no mistake, the seizure of power, albeit one that was achieved without the loss of lives, is nonetheless a form of political violence that is incompatible with the democratic aspirations of the Thai people. Democratic aspirations will live on even as the Constitution has already been abrogated by the coup leaders.
The spirit of democracy that undermined Thaksin’s apparent omnipresence will now shift its watchful eyes to the coup leaders.
Latest headline from The Nation:
“PROFILE: GEN SONTHI BOONYARATGLIN
Meteoric rise to POWER”
Following the coup, General Sonthi has so much POWER that it needed to be in all caps.
The Thai press (at least the English-language kind) is abuzz over the arrest of Jon Benet Ramsey’s alleged killer. He lived pretty close to one of my friends, apparently. But as for my take (not that anyone asked), The Onion sums things up rather nicely:
“An accused murdering sex-offender goes into hiding, and no one thinks to check out Thailand?”
In other news, the man apparently tried to get a sex change while in Thailand. They’re cheap here at around US$1600, so maybe he just had some extra cash lying around and wanted to see what would happen.
Blogging has taken something of a backseat in my life right now as I work on getting adjusted to my new life in Bangkok, where I’ll be based for the next year or so. I decided to come here and reunite with Mrs. Adamu (who’s working at an NGO here) after visiting in May and seeing that it wouldn’t be a complete disaster for me.
While I’ve traveled to several countries in Asia, this is my first time living someplace other than the US or Japan – the two parts of the world with possibly the highest living standards. Now I am living in a strange country that I know next to nothing about. I’m aware of some of the basic stuff, but certainly not enough to rant about it semi-coherently on this blog. But while I’m here, I’ll give you a list of some aspects of Thailand that have culture-shocked me so far:
Outlets that spark when you plug something into them.
Badly designed infrastructure (random low ceilings on staircases, doorknobs with sharp objects jutting out from them, unevenly spaced stairs, a tangle of low-hanging electrical wires in the streets with the occasional loose dangler) forcing me to stay extra vigilant.
Bangkok, a city the size of New York, has next no traffic lights.
Grime on the street (supposedly caused by diesel trucks and “tuktuks” – little scooter-taxis). The grime turns to grime-mud when it rains, making the streets slippery.
Speaking of the streets, they smell of funky Thai food constantly because they are lined with street vendors selling guavas, some kind of stinky spiked fruit, sausages, chicken, and other meats exposed to the open air and thus made inedible (to me anyway).
Constant reminders of how great the king is. It’s illegal to criticize the king here, but just to let you know I already think the king is great – I don’t really need to be reminded of it every day.
TV shows in Thailand make liberal use of cliched comedy sound effects – lots of slide whistles and BOIOIOING!
Living somewhere where I speak none of the language – but thankfully gesturing isn’t that tough and most Thai people can communicate with you in Tinglish. In fact, I would say that in general Thais’ English communication skills surpass those of the Japanese.
Aggressive salesmanship – tuktuk drivers scream “WHERE YOU GO” at me, the DVD sellers at Pintip Plaza get right in your damn face, Big C (a discount store, Thailand’s got lots of them) employs something like 6 people in their electronics section whose sole job is to approach people and sling them some jive.
There is a general chaos about this city. Thai people seem to like their driving aggressive, their crowds dense, and their food outside and on the sidewalk.
Just to name a few. That’s not to say things are all that bad here. It’s wonderful to be back with Mrs. Adamu, the food is generally pretty good, many people are friendly, and I can find more good American food (Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut – you know, only the best) here than I could in Japan.
I still really need to learn the language though. Thai is a little similar to Chinese in that it’s a tonal language. Right now most people just chuckle whenever I try and say something since I am just randomly stabbing at the tones.
I’ll try and keep you posted on interesting stuff I notice here. I’m especially interested in getting at some of the more interesting aspects of the Thailand-Japan relationship (though supply channels/factory management/FTA negotiations tend not to make great conversation starters), as that’s at least some sort of perspective I can start with.