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Last Updated: Friday, 22 September 2006, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Coup leaders' addiction to power
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin smiles at a press conference
Gen Sonthi's coup was the first in Thailand for 15 years
When Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin seized power in Thailand this week, he joined a long list of military leaders to have succumbed to the lure of the coup.

Many can be found in Thailand's own history, where 17 putsches took place between 1932 and the restoration of civilian rule in 1992.

Although Gen Sonthi and his military council have proposed a 12-month timetable for a return to a democracy, only time will tell if they stick to that commitment.

History, after all, presents many examples of military men who have found it hard to give up the power they seized.

In Pakistan, Gen Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and named himself president in 2001.

He was elected to a five-year term in 2002 but - despite international and domestic pressure - has reneged on a promise to relinquish his role as head of the army.

Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, Mauritania - coup in 2005
Francois Bozize, Central African Republic - coup in 2003
Gen Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan - coup in 1999
President Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia - coup in 1994
President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan - coup in 1989
Blaise Campaore, Burkina Faso - coup in 1987
President Lansana Conte, Guinea - coup in 1984
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libya - coup in 1969

In Chile, Gen Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973 and finally left office in 1990, after his surprise defeat in a 1988 plebiscite which he intended would grant him a further eight years in office.

For eight years after leaving power he remained commander-in-chief of the army, immune from prosecution or removal, and then became a senator-for-life.

Nigeria's former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida - who has said he will stand in next April's presidential elections - came to power in a 1985 coup and was only toppled in 1993 by mass protests.

Power as aphrodisiac

Richard Reeve, an Africa analyst at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, says the military leaders involved in coups often remain in charge far longer than they themselves initially envisaged.

Pakistan's leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, salutes the UN General Assembly
Gen Pervez Musharraf reneged on a promise to give up his military role

"Very often they don't intend to stay in power when they seize power - it's that old 'power as an aphrodisiac' thing. Once you have it, it's hard to give up. There's also a fear of prosecution [if they leave power].

"It's very hard to go back to your previous life as a soldier, so you would be looking for a financial pay-off, an amnesty or to keep the power yourself."

The length of time a coup leader stays in power may also depend on the size of the force behind him, Mr Reeve says, with larger, more structured armies better equipped to take over the role of government.

"There's often a feeling that the military is a more permanent institution than the political institution," Mr Reeve said.

'Good of the nation'

Ronaldo Munck, a political sociology professor at Dublin City University, suggests a degree of self-delusion is central to the mindset of coup leaders.

Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure at the Non-Aligned Movement, 2006
Mali's Amadou Toumani Toure was quick to return power to the people

In Latin America in the 1960s and early 1970s, military intervention was usually triggered by economic instability and some kind of political crisis, he says.

"The military came in as saviours of the situation - that's how they portrayed themselves anyway - and usually with the promise that democracy would be restored.

"They would see themselves as guardians of stability in the country above the political parties... If political parties mess around and don't govern, as they see it, they would intervene to run the country 'for the good of the nation'."

However, the tide turned in the 1980s, when Latin American governments agreed not to recognise leaders who came to power by military means.

Prof Munck puts this down to a growing appreciation that military regimes do not make good governments and are rarely sustainable long-term.

Wider forces

Faced with international pressure, many coup leaders have sought legitimacy by relinquishing their military role and standing in civilian elections.

Coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon (left) kneels in front of King Bhumibol, 1992
Coup leader Suchinda knelt to King Bhumibol after his intervention

In some cases, they are credited with bringing a new stability to their country's politics.

Mr Reeve cites Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure, a general who overthrew a military dictator in 1991 and handed power to elected civilians the following year, as an example of a coup leader who gained "hero status" by living up to his promises.

He went on to win presidential elections in May 2002 and remains in power today.

As for Thailand, Prof Munck believes the longevity of the new military regime may be decided by the support the generals maintain from powerful business interests - and, of course, the country's much-revered king.

Fourteen years ago, it was King Bhumibol Adulyadej's intervention, following streets protests in which scores of people died, that spelled the end of coup leader General Suchinda Kraprayoon's rule.

"I wouldn't focus just on the military because they don't do these things alone," Prof Munck said.

"In Latin America it would always be powerful civilian groups that would go to the military and urge them to intervene. The military on the whole don't have the political intelligence to act on their own."

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