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Thailand sour over coup a year on

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

There was a time when people used to joke about Thailand's proclivity for military coups - there have been plenty.

But most Thais thought that the era of coups was behind them, until they watched in disbelief as tanks rolled through the streets of Bangkok on the night of 19 September 2006.

Supporters of the coup d'etat stand in front of a military tank in Bangkok last year (file picture)
A year ago, many Thais accepted the coup

It was a textbook putsch, carried out without shedding a drop of blood, as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was preparing to deliver his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York.

And such was the intractability of the crisis surrounding his leadership, pitting his populist, rural-based party against a royalist, city-based elite, that many people simply accepted the military's intervention with a sigh of relief.

They came out with flowers and food to greet the troops, who were gone from the streets within a few days.

A year later, and the public mood has soured.

Today the newspapers are full of commentators wringing their hands over the military-backed government's many failures.

One paper described the past 12 months as a "lost year"; another said that all the hopes raised by the military's intervention were now futile - that Thailand's democracy had been sent back into a "Jurassic Age".

Divided

So what has gone so wrong? After all, the key promise made by the military after they seized power was a quick return to democratic rule, and they look certain to keep it by holding elections in December.

The interim government has failed to solve the problems it used as a justification for the coup.

There were two key justifications given: first, that the country had become dangerously polarised under Mr Thaksin; and second, that his corruption and abuses of power had reached intolerable levels.

The military has given the impression of pursuing a personal vendetta against Mr Thaksin, distracting it from building the foundations of a better democracy

One year on, Thailand remains just as divided between passionate supporters and opponents of the ousted prime minister.

And it has proved very difficult to bring convincing cases of large-scale corruption against Mr Thaksin.

The one charge made against him to date involves a land purchase by his wife from a state agency, allegedly at a bargain price - but in the context of Thailand's traditionally corrupt politics that hardly amounts to grounds for a coup.

The performance of the government has failed to impress in other areas.

The military chose a highly-respected retired general, Surayud Chulanond, as interim prime minister, but he has proved to be an indecisive leader.

His cabinet, comprised of veteran bureaucrats and academics, has shown little cohesion, with individual ministers pursuing their own agendas.

The government's economic initiatives, intended to protect Thai companies, have backfired, damaging business confidence in Thailand.

The economy is growing more slowly than others in Asian countries.

Step backwards

The military has used its influence in what, to many Thais, is an unseemly manner.

The armed forces budget has been sharply increased, generals have been installed to run several state companies, and there has been a concerted effort, so far unsuccessful, to pass a draconian new security law that would give the military much greater emergency power.

It has raised doubts over the sincerity of their promise of a quick exit from the political scene, not helped by the ambiguity over whether coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin might contest the next election after he retires.

The military has given the impression of pursuing a personal vendetta against Mr Thaksin, distracting it from building the foundations of a better democracy.

A law limiting foreign ownership in Thai companies, which has badly shaken the confidence of foreign investors, was introduced largely to close a loophole used by Mr Thaksin when he sold his telecoms conglomerate to the investment arm of the Singapore government.

The new constitution drafted by the military is widely viewed as less democratic than the one the military tore up, because it restricts the power of elected politicians like Mr Thaksin, who was accused of over-exploiting the record majorities he won in two general elections.

Although still in exile, Mr Thaksin remains a formidable political force, with the party set up by his followers likely to do well in the next election on the back of strong rural support.

And many of the politicians who have set up rival parties are discredited characters from previous administrations better known for corruption and incompetence.

One newspaper editorial laments that there can never be a deep-rooted democracy in Thailand until the Thai people learn to stop deferring to autocratic figures like Mr Thaksin and the generals.

Most of all, there is a commonly expressed view that the coup has moved Thailand backwards, not forwards.




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