THAILAND: No way to justify the coup

The Nation newspaper of November 22 has published a summary of the full reasons to be given by the military junta in Thailand for its September 19 takeover. According to the newspaper, the justifications for the coup, due to be published shortly, include the following: corruption and conflict of interest; abuse of power; violations of ethics; interference in political checks and balances; policies that caused human rights violations; and, destroying national unity.

What is new in any of this? On September 20, the day after the coup, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin stated that he had taken power because of the political impasse, national disunity, rampant corruption, interference in independent agencies and the undermining of the 1997 Constitution, which he had meanwhile abolished: essentially the same old excuses as those given by the coup group of General Suchinda Kraprayoon in 1991. The regime has set up agencies with the express purpose of obtaining evidence to substantiate its allegations, instructed public bodies and media outlets to deny legitimate criticism, and interfered with the upper judiciary in order to pursue the political party of the former prime minister.

If these were the real reasons for the takeover, then why not do it earlier? The government of Pol. Lt. Col. Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra had for years stood accused of corruption, nepotism and abuses of power. Like other governments with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, it had since its inception sought to manipulate the political system to its advantage and cut down agencies designed to keep it in check. The Asian Human Rights Commission, among others, had since 2004 documented and decried widespread extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and other gross abuses of human rights under the Thaksin administration by all security forces, including the army. But apparently none of that mattered until now.

One of the excuses being constantly intoned, but not explained, is that national unity was at risk now more than ever. The preamble to the interim constitution asserts the need for the coup group to

“Heal the widening divisions among the people who were being incited to take sides, eroding unity among the people within the nation and leading to a severe social crisis [which…] seemed to have deteriorated to such an extent that armed clashes would ensue, leading to bloodshed and loss of life. This was considered a grave threat to the democratic system with the King as Head of State, to the economy and to public order.”

What does this really mean? Thailand consists of a society that has for centuries been subject to conflict and change. However, there are many different types of conflict. One type aims to reinforce the existing state of affairs, such as by shouting down or killing political opponents. Another type aims to threaten the existing state of affairs, such as by challenging the authority of established institutions. It is this sort of conflict, prevalent under the previous administration, to which the military regime has objected. 

In this the members of the current junta are the inheritors of the ideological legacy of former dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. Ruling the country from 1958 to ’63, Sarit built up a fictionalised version of the state based upon supposed 700-year old notions of patronage via the monarchy. His model of social order left no room for parliamentary dispute, defence of human rights, public criticism or protest. The present regime, while paying lip service to the values of the 1997 Constitution, seeks to recreate a version of Thailand from an earlier time when the nation was peaceful and orderly and conflict was limited to the use of state violence and repression to reinforce the its principles and authority.

It won’t succeed. The problem is that this version of Thailand is the opposite of what the 1997 Constitution represented. That document had at its heart the allowance of conflict in, for instance: freedom of opinion and expression (sections 39 & 41); use of radio, television and telecommunications “for the public interest” (section 40); academic freedom (section 42); rights of assembly and association (sections 44 & 45); right to preserve traditional cultures and natural resources (sections 46 & 56); freedom to form political parties (section 47); access to information (sections 58 & 59); public participation in decision making and in presenting petitions (sections 60 & 61); right to sue the state (section 62); and last but not least, right to resist any illegal takeover of national power, i.e., a coup (section 65). All of these provisions tolerated and even encouraged conflict by giving space for its legitimate exercise. Why? Because whereas authoritarian societies seek to repress and control disagreement, progressive societies admit that the taking of sides is a necessary part of their growth and maturation. It is also fundamental to the exercise of human rights, which depends upon the capacity of individuals to oppose the state, to stand against the perpetrators of abuses, alongside the victims.  

In an essay named ‘Politics vs. Literature’, George Orwell examines the utopian society created by Jonathan Swift in his famous book, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. For Swift, utopia consists in the absence of all forms of social conflict. Orwell rightly takes issue with this, noting that the occupants of this society “had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force…”

Absolute national unity is absolute totalitarianism. By claiming that national unity was threatened by the prevailing conflict in Thailand and that it could not have been resolved through any method other than military intervention, the coup group of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin is appealing to totalitarian, not democratic principles. For want of its own ideas, it is rehashing the outdated and regressive political and social philosophies of its predecessors. This is one of the many deep contradictions in its position that make its pretences at promotion of democracy and human rights sheer humbug. 

There is no way to justify this coup. On behalf of the global human rights community, the Asian Human Rights Commission again unequivocally rejects any pretensions of the military regime in Thailand to the standards of human rights, or assertions that it has the mandate to secure the means for the rule of law and democracy. None of these will be assured there until the country has built the institutions and means needed to oppose both elected and unelected despots. This work can begin only once the army has been removed from power.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-289-2006
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Military, State of emergency & martial law,