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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 September 2006, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Thais cheery over military coup
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

This week Thailand experienced its first military coup for 15 years. In an unexpected move the army commander overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin had been under growing pressure to step down over alleged corruption and abuses of power, but remained very popular in the countryside.

It started with royal music and familiar pictures of the king being played continuously on an army-run television station. That was strange, even during this year, the 60th anniversary of Thailand's much-loved monarch.

Leaders of Thailand's coup in Bangkok - 22/9/06
The new leadership is consolidating its hold on power
So rumours of a coup started to circulate like wildfire. But there had been coup rumours all year and it was hard to believe that the people of Thailand, now a vibrant, pluralistic democracy, would tolerate something as unfashionable as tanks and soldiers on the streets.

Well, they didn't just tolerate it, they welcomed it with open arms. Mr Thaksin was the most popular political leader in recent Thai history, the first to win an outright majority in parliament. And yet the troops who had forced him out were cheered and festooned with flowers. What on earth was going on?

Like many other East Asian societies, Thais place enormous weight on the value of harmony, avoiding open conflict wherever possible. That has not been easy as the country has undergone dramatic economic growth, creating yawning disparities in wealth but the unbreakable faith people here put in their aging monarch, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, to guarantee that harmony has helped them live with these wrenching changes.

An entire elite network of businessmen, military officers and bureaucrats has flourished from its connections to the palace, monopolising most of the wealth from Thailand's spectacular growth. The system worked well, despite a succession of military coups, up until the 1990s.

Modern politics

There was forgiveness for armed rebels, and the aura of royal benevolence for the rural poor. The king travelled frequently into the countryside, and started his own agricultural development projects.

But confidence in this arrangement fell apart after the last military coup in 1991 - by then a much larger and more confident middle class resisted attempts by the generals to hold on to power, forcing the king to intervene, and allow stronger democratic roots to grow.

Then the Asian economic crisis of 1997 prompted another re-think and led to the constitution of that year, designed to promote modern party politics, for the first time based on policies and personalities.

King Bhumibol addresses the crowd from his balcony, June 2006
The king is highly revered in Thailand
It was in this new environment that Thaksin Shinawatra thrived. A self-made billionaire, he dazzled Thais with his can-do philosophy, and won over the rural majority with his populist anti-poverty policies. No other politician in Thai history has matched his vote-winning skills.

After his first election victory five years ago, everyone rallied round him, convinced his ability to get rich would rub off on the rest of the country.

That there was large-scale corruption and cronyism under Mr Thaksin not disputed but that was true of previous administrations. The irrepressible Mr Thaksin, though, went further.

He meddled with the simmering conflict in the Muslim south, putting it under the authority of the police, instead of the army. The result was a disaster and five years later more than 1,500 have died and the central government has lost control of the region.

Mr Thaksin declared a war on drugs, giving police-led death squads licence to kill any suspected dealers. An estimated 2,000 died in that operation.

But worst of all, he ignored pleas from the king to moderate his policies. Instead he re-shuffled key military and civil service positions to try to eclipse the old royalist elite.

Political turmoil

When he managed to sell his family business in January without paying a penny of tax, the middle class in Bangkok rose up. Their stubborn resistance, resulting in a boycotted election in April, gave the old elite their excuse.

The harmony upheld by the king for more than half a century had been shattered. Even worse, the ailing monarch was clearly distressed by it - and with him, the rest of the population began to yearn for an end to the political turmoil.

There is no shortage of people here who still feel strong affection for the ousted prime minister. He was the first to shape policies specifically aimed at the poor. But many of them also say that what has happened is perhaps for the best, otherwise Thailand would have continued to be divided over his leadership, they say, and that would be intolerable.

The new military rulers offer the same justification for their takeover.

They reject the idea that democracy, the prospect of elections in two months time, might be the best means of resolving those differences. An uncomfortable rift between a populist prime minister and a traditional elite has instead been swiftly resolved, at gunpoint.

It may take months or years to fashion another constitution, and it may in the end be no better than the one the soldiers have just torn up. No matter, harmony has been restored - just look at the flower-draped tanks in central Bangkok - it's almost a point of pride.

Only in Thailand, they say, could a military coup this cheerful and this peaceful take place.

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 23 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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