Thailand's coup leaders struggle for acceptance abroad
The Associated Press
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2006-->
Published: September 27, 2006
BANGKOK, Thailand Thailand's military rulers are struggling to convince the international community that staging a coup was the only way to maintain democracy here. But it's been a tough sell.
Troops and tanks rolled through Bangkok's streets just over a week ago and deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had overwhelmingly won the past three elections. The United States and other governments quickly condemned the coup as a setback to democracy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up initial criticism, telling the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that Thailand needs "to get a civilian government and they need to get to elections and get back on a democratic path very, very quickly."
Criticism like that has made the military rulers increasingly defensive. They say foreign governments have failed to consider the complexity of the situation in Thailand, where democracy and democratic institutions took a severe beating under Thaksin.
"We are disappointed with their reaction," said Maj. Gen. Thaweep Netniyom, a spokesman for the coup leaders. "But we also understand their reaction. These are countries that have a very fixed definition of democracy."
Thailand has been widely considered a beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia, where neighbors include military-ruled Myanmar, Communist-led Vietnam and Laos, and Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been assailed for ignoring human rights and free speech, and for jailing critics.
But democracy in Thailand, with its history of military coups, has always been fragile.
Thaksin, a charismatic tycoon-turned-politician, was loved by the rural poor for introducing a universal health care plan and a raft of populist policies. But he was also accused of widespread corruption, human rights abuses, stifling the media and a long list of undemocratic offenses. Massive protests earlier this year demanding his resignation had failed, but were scheduled to resume.
After the military seized power on Sept. 19, coup leaders said they intervened because military intelligence showed the likelihood of imminent and violent clashes between Thaksin's supporters and opponents.
In the capital, Bangkok, the coup makers were celebrated as liberators. Thais showered the tanks with flowers and donated food to troops. Polls have shown that over 75 percent of the country's people supported the coup — partly because their revered king endorsed it.
But Western nations' criticism has caught the coup engineers off guard, and they've been struggling with public relations abroad. "For outsiders, a coup is a coup. There is no necessary coup. There is no good coup," said former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. "The challenge is to explain to critics and doubters out there: Look, there was no democracy left under Thaksin."
"The fact that they (the coup leaders) are trying to reach out shows that they are concerned about Time magazine and The Economist and international headlines," Surin said, referring to the latest overseas editions of both magazines, which put the coup on their covers with images of soldiers and tanks.
To Thailand — whose economy is driven by tourism, foreign investment and exports — the world's opinion matters.
Coup leaders have held several daily news conferences and offered special English-language briefings for foreign media in Bangkok.
They have sought to ease foreign investors' minds by pledging a commitment to a free-market economy, to maintaining the previous administration's economic and social policies and to continuing megaprojects like expanding Bangkok's subway system.
They have reached out to the diplomatic community, inviting diplomats twice over the past week for debriefings with question-answer sessions.
Diplomats have been urged to send their governments the message that "the military takeover will not be forever, just a very short time — and power will be returned back to the people as soon as possible," said Thaweep, the military spokesman.
At the United Nations, Thailand's ambassador reassured the international community that her country was quickly returning to normal. "We will ensure a swift return to democracy with a definite timeline," Laxanachantorn Laohaphan told the General Assembly Wednesday.
When army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin seized power he vowed to install a temporary civilian regime within two weeks, or by Oct. 4. He has since pledged repeatedly to stick to his self-imposed deadline.
But the longer it takes, the more frustrated the international community will become, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"There is a broad effort to try to restore international credibility. But the longer they wait, the more problematic it will become," said Thitinan. "They need to hand over power to a competent civilian government. That would solve their problem."
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