Thai generals topple elected government


By Helen Jarvis

While the world's attention was focussed on the carnage in the Middle East, on February 23 the Thai government was overthrown by the country's military forces.

Many outside Thailand reacted with something of a yawn, saying "what's news about a coup in Thailand?" — it was the 17th coup attempt since 1932.

Within Thailand itself, reaction was one of bitter disappointment that the days of military coups had not yet been done away with once and for all. It had been five years since the last coup attempt, and over 14 years since the last "successful" coup, when the military seized power from a moderately progressive government in a bloody and savage attack.

The latest coup was a genteel affair. It seems not a shot was fired, and there have been no mass arrests. Prime Minister Chatichai was arrested and detained in an unspecified military camp, together with members of his family and close political associates. The king remained silent.

A National Peacekeeping Council was established, led by Supreme Commander General Sunthorn, who declared martial law, banned meetings of more than five people and dissolved parliament, although elections have been promised within six months and political parties have not been banned.

Sunthorn justified the coup as putting an end to a government that was corrupt, was undermining the army and was politicising the bureaucracy — what he called "a dictatorship of parliament" led by a Thai version of Ferdinand Marcos.

Chatichai is an extremely wealthy man with extensive business interests, but he is no Marcos. Chatichai's wealth was accrued before he came to power (interestingly enough, primarily during his time in the military — he was also a general). And it was not Chatichai who introduced martial law as Marcos did, but those who overthrew his government.

No-one can deny that the government was corrupt, and that many ministers and senior government personnel made millions as the economy boomed. Chatichai's policies of unrestricted business growth brought a relative decline in the power of the military and in the bureaucratic apparatus that had previously controlled the economy. In the last weeks of his government, Chatichai announced he intended to abolish the powerful Board of Investment.

The military seems to have been united behind the coup. No units came out to defend the government, as they had done in many past coup attempts. Neither did the people respond. The little people fared no better under Chatichai than they had under previous military administrations.

But Chatichai had taken some risks and made some bold moves. Immediately after his election in August 1988, he announced a total ban on logging in Thailand, a move than enraged some sectors of ry, which controlled the logging permits.

At the same time, he took over Indochina policy from the conservative foreign minister, Siddhi, and began to break with the strongly anti-Vietnam stand of ASEAN, instead opening talks with Thailand's neighbours. A bridge was planned to cross the Mekong to Laos.

Thai business and government officials have made regular visits to Hanoi and to Phnom Penh, and Chatichai planned for his current foreign minister, Arthit, to make a formal visit to Cambodia next month.

The Chatichai government was also following a tough line in trade disputes with the United States.

One English-language newspaper in Bangkok defied the military censorship and proclaimed across its front page, "The power belongs to the people, nobody else". Chatichai's government may not have been a people's government, not radically progressive in its policies, but its overthrow in a military coup was a sad day for democracy in Thailand.