The September 19 military coup has been described by some persons as benign. Their reasoning goes that the government of Thaksin Shinawatra was bad and intransigent. Whatever way it could be removed was good. Even normally well-informed news media have evoked images of a quiet and non-violent coup that is expected to just “slip in and slip out”, in the words of one BBC correspondent.

The Asian Human Rights Commission rejects these arguments as naive and confused.

The Thaksin government was a civilian autocracy. It did not respect human rights, the rule of law or democratic principles. It manipulated the media, intimidated its opponents, and played with legislation and public institutions for its own advantage. It exacerbated violence, from wanton extrajudicial killings of supposed drug dealers across Thailand to the conflict in the south. It enormously expanded the power and influence of the police. It fixed an election and allegedly extorted vast sums of money.

But a military autocracy is worse than a civilian autocracy. Within hours of taking power, the army abrogated the constitution, banned political assemblies, commenced extralegal arrests, and authorised censorship. The Thaksin government sought to undermine the constitution, harass gatherings of political opponents, and control the media through advertising revenue and criminal defamation. But by its very nature, it did not have the audacity to abandon the country’s supreme law and ban civil rights. By contrast, and by its very nature, the army has already done so.

Today Thailand is without a parliament and a constitution. Its executive is under control of the army. Its judiciary is hobbled. Its media is threatened. It is in a very dangerous moment.

The argument in favour of a military coup is akin to the argument used by proponents of torture. Torture, they say, is sometimes a regrettable necessity. Where the lives of many are at stake, the physical integrity of one may be violated. Likewise, a coup is sometimes described as a regrettable necessity. Where a country is at stake, a government’s integrity can be violated.

Both arguments boil down to the same wrong-headed notion: that a coup, like torture, can be started and stopped with convenience. It cannot. Torture, once it is introduced into a system of investigation, mutates and spreads. It affects not only the victim but the persons who use it, their institutions and the perceptions of society about what is permitted and what is not. Likewise, a military that obtains power through a coup infiltrates and distorts all areas of governance, as well as public attitudes and expectations. Once admitted, it is not easily removed. Its presence is felt long after it is physically gone.

People in Thailand struggled for decades with a succession of military governments and their legacy.  In 1992 they finally made a clean break with the past, culminating with the 1997 Constitution of Thailand. It was a remarkable achievement that followed years of hard work. The values it expresses reflect popular desires: respect for human dignity, rights to life and liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, a public media in the national interest, protection of the environment. And tellingly, “the right to resist peacefully any act committed for the acquisition of the power to rule the country by a means which is not in accordance with the modes provided in this Constitution”. For all this they deservedly obtained high praise.

This coup has undone that struggle. What message is sent when yesterday’s supreme law is today no law? What message is sent about years of effort to build a government on democratic principles, however imperfect it may be, when it can be toppled at will? What sense of hope or expectation does it give for the future?

Above all, the consequences of this coup for the judiciary in Thailand are disastrous. Governments exercise power through the bureaucracy and police; armies through the barrel of a gun. Courts obtain their power from public confidence. The courts in Thailand had that confidence and were working vigorously to play an unprecedented role to solve pressing national problems. They have now been completely displaced from that role; the Constitutional Court has been suspended altogether. The public confidence that had been invested in the courts will now be greatly diminished, affecting all aspects of their working.

There is a saying that runs, “Afraid of the tiger, one invokes a tutelary, but the tutelary turns out to be worse than the tiger.” Today, Thailand has replaced a tiger with a tutelary. Happy that the tiger is gone, the terrible implications of how and by whom it was removed are not yet understood. But there is one certainty: no military coup just “slips in and out”. By nature, military rulers leave things behind to ensure that their interests endure. And by nature, those interests are contrary to the rule of law, human rights and genuine democracy. Proof of this can be found today in Pakistan and Burma, and in the leftovers of military dictatorships in virtually every country of South and Southeast Asia.

The question is not whether the coup is benign or malign. The question is, how much damage has it already caused, and how can it be mitigated?

The Asian Human Rights Commission reiterates its call to the Royal Thai Army for an immediate return to civilian control and restoration of the constitution, without any amendment other than that to pave the way for prompt and fair elections. It reiterates its call for continued strong international condemnation of the takeover, including from the United Nations. And it makes a special call to the international news media not to misunderstand and misrepresent the coup in Thailand through glib summations from casual observations: study the real consequences of the coup before reporting on it.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-222-2006
Countries : Thailand,