By Jono Kinkade
After the ousting of Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the Sept. 19 coup, many people both within Thailand and its diaspora have mixed feelings as the new leadership’s reinstitution of democracy begins.
Prime Minister Thaksin, the elected governmental leader in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, was in New York attending a United Nations General Assembly meeting as Thai army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratklin led troops to the Government House, claiming control of the government in a bloodless coup. The coup was the second in Thailand in 16 years. Many people in Bangkok welcomed the military’s actions, handing the soldiers flowers and food.
"This is good for our country," said a Thai woman working at the Thai Noodles House restaurant on Mission St. who wished to remain anonymous. The optimistic expectations for the new government held by many Thai people can be considered a reflection of a prominent saying and way of life, "mai pben rai," which translates to "never mind" or "don’t worry."
But while some welcome the coup, others are concerned about its possible outcomes, including Lecturer of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz Sandra Cate.
"While they’re relieved that Thaksin’s rule has come to an end, many will be concerned about the long term prospects for democracy and economic stability, Cate said. Cate teaches a course entitled "Culture and History of Southeast Asia" at UCSC.
Before the September coup, Prime Minister Thaksin was the subject of harsh criticism and protests against various decisions considered to be blatant abuses of power. At a particularly tumultuous time in April, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is primarily a social icon and rarely intervenes in political matters, called for Thaksin’s resignation. Although Thaksin did resign from his seat as Prime Minister, he reclaimed it a month later and has continued to serve as Thailand’s leader, all the while continuing to face criticisms of his abuse and consolidation of power.
Not only did King Bhumibol make a rare public denunciation of Thaksin while Thaksin was still acting Prime Minister, but the King also endorsed the newly-formed Administrative Reform Council (ARC), which will serve as the public body overseeing the transition back to democracy, for which elections are planned in November of next year. The King’s actions have provided a sense of relief for many in Thailand, where people feel that the King is a unifying cultural authority.
Pitch Ponsawat, a member of the Political Science Faculty at Chulalonkorn University in Bangkok, believes that it will be a difficult task for the government to again resume as a democracy that is not consumed by corruption.
"The issue is no longer about democracy because democracy is no longer the rule of the game since the people’s constitution was violated by the coup," Pitch said in an e-mail correspondance. "Although all the constitutional channels to keep Thaksin in check were manipulated earlier. Now it is a matter of how to keep elections at bay to prevent the corrupt politicians from the rural areas from coming back to power," he continued, referring to one of the problems in Thailand’s political system.
Both the elections and the people’s support in the rural areas of the country commonly see corrupt obstructions.
Since the coup, the revolutionary junta has restricted the press and banned political gatherings. Such actions are causing some to wonder if retired military General Surayud Chulanont, the recently-appointed interim Prime Minister, and other-recently appointed cabinet members will lead the Thai government in a positive direction over the next year.
"The media and the government are in a very good position because the media and key academic figures are taking side with the coup," Pitch said. "By not questioning the motives of the coup and putting all the blame on Thaksin, the pro-coup atmosphere weakens all possibility of a democratic culture."
Quincy Surasmith, a Thai-American student at UCSC, supports the removal of former Prime Minister Thaksin, though he remains concerned over the methods in which his removal occured.
"I don’t feel that coups and massive upheavals in government are exactly the best route for democracy," Surasmith said via e-mail. "Especially when they basically render the previous constitutional monarchy system null and void."
"I just hope that things settle down quickly and that the ensuing government is set up properly, reasonably, and with a much more stable and accountable system than the last one," Surasmith said.
While many are smiling as they say "mai pben rai," Pitch hopes that the Thai people will not continue to be surrounded in the violence and chaos of governmental change.
"It [is] a matter of toleration and peaceful disobedience that will yield long-term benefits to democracy," Pitch said. "If and only if we believe that people are equal to make not only their own choices, but also their own mistakes."