Monday, February 01, 2010

Onward Buddhist Soldiers

So you thought Buddhists were nonviolent?

In Thailand the military is independent of the government's control, and in fact it has the power to overthrow and replace governments elected by the people. In 1932, a bloodless coup by civil servants and army officers ended 150 years of absolute rule by the Chakri dynasty of kings. Despite a constitution (quite a few of them), the first 50 years of Thailand as a democracy were dominated by numerous coups and military dictatorships. Today, Thailand is defined as "a democracy with the King as head of state." Although the King is declared above politics, the military often defines its role as the protection of the monarchy. The last military coup in 2006 toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra which had twice been elected by popular vote. Following the post-coup election in 2007 that returned Shinawatra supporters to power, the military stood by while street demonstrations and politicized judicial decisions brought down two governments. Then it helped install a coalition government of anti-Thaksin political parties led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who has never won an election.

All this is background to help understand why coup rumors are again in the air. Thaksin in exile is a thorn in the side of the military, bureaucratic and business elite that currently rules Thailand from Bangkok. While in power, Thaksin, who had been a lieutenant colonel in the Thai Royal Police (a powerful parallel military institution to the armed forces), strengthened a military that had been in decline. But the current army chief, Anupong Paochinda, has purged those officers allied with the ex-prime minister. Last year a group of retired generals joined Thaksin's Puea Thai Party of supporters. And earlier this month a grenade exploded outside Anupong's headquarters. There were no injuries but the general covered up the attack for a week. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a rogue major general better known as "Seh Daeng" who has a cult following because of his colorful exploits as a soldier for over 30 years, was accused of masterminding the attack and weapons were reportedly found at his home. But he was neither arrested nor charged with any crime. Instead, a show of support for Anupong has been orchestrated in the press with troops pledging their loyalty at mass rallies. Khattiya has been a vocal supporter of Thaksin and his red shirt followers, but it's hard to see how he presents a threat to the powerful military. The truth in Thai politics, however, is rarely on the surface. A Reuters story last week by Martin Petty was headlined "Are cracks appearing in Thailand's military?"

D Day for the anti-government forcs is Feb. 26th when the verdict on Thaksin's 76-billion-baht($2.3 billion) assets case will be handed down by the Supreme Court. It is expected that the seized money will be claimed by the government and that Thaksin will be considerably weakened financially. Since the moratorium on demonstrations during the King's birthday celebrations in December, the red shirts have mobilized selectively throughout the country to protest unequal treatment under the law, even forcing a retired general to give up the luxury vacation home he had built illegally on national park land. The English language press is full of predictions of unrest instigated by the red shirts (who in turn argue that the closing of the airports a year ago by the anti-Democratic yellow shirts has yet to be punished).

A headline last week read: "Coup? What Coup?" I don't know what to expect. Yesterday morning I heard several helicopters overhead and ran to my balcony to see if the coup had begun. Despite Abhisit repeatedly giving assurances that all is fine in the "Land of Smiles." whether it be about the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees to Laos or the GT200 bomb-finding devices purchased by for billions of baht by the military that have been shown to be useless. But there are public disagreements among coalition parties that could bring the fragile government down. Everyone knows that Thaksin's supporters would win if another election were held, for the ruling elites are politically and financially powerful but few in numbers. A coup would be disastrous for the economy and would probably not be bloodless. The pro-democracy movements (for not all support Thaksin) have declared that they would resist a military takeover this time.

Thailand has a large and well-funded military with a disproportionately large number of generals to command the draft-fueled 300,000 troops and 200,000 reservists. They own most of the radio and TV stations and generals sit on the boards of many large corporation. It's hard to see why such a bloated military establishment (largely created by America funds during the Vietnam war) is needed. A long-standing insurgency of Muslim separatists in the south commands most of their time, since low-intensity border disputes with Burma, Laos and Cambodia are more amenable to diplomacy that defense. In exchange for putting Abisit's coalition into power, the military received a hefty increase in their budget, allowing them to buy top-notch weaponry from various countries selling their technologies of warfare.There appears to be no government oversight and control. Voranai Vanijake wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday, "When the military interferes in political affairs, they are abusing their role in society. Instead of standing on the wall with a gun, defending us from external forces, they mean to interfere, manipulate and control the political course of this nation." In another article in that paper last week, Suranand Vejjajiva wrote , "So long as a coup d'etat remains a viable political option, democracy is immature. That is a pity for Thailand, which has been experimenting with the democratic system of a constitutional monarchy for the past 78 years." He insisted that "the Bangkok elite and intellectuals must learn to respect the will of the people. Power must be shared. They must trust the people's judgment and learn to live with the result of what the majority of the people want."

The Democracy Monument, built to commemorate the achievement of constitutional monarchy in 1932, was designed by designed by Corrado Feroci, the founder of modern art in Thailand who spent much of the 1920s designing monuments for Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He later changed his name to Silpa Bhirasr and was a founder of Silpakorn University, the major school of art in Bangkok. Here is a version at a recent toy show built with Legos, a fitting symbol Thai democracy:

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