Thailand and Nepal: Asian Monarchies in turmoil

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By Shashi P.B.B. Malla & Ralf Narendra B.B. Malla

Thailand has a parliamentary democracy with constitutional monarchy. With a land mass of 513 thousand sq. km., it ranks 49th among all independent states, and with a population of 62 million, it ranks 19th in the world. Buddhists comprise 94.6%, the Muslims 4.6% and Christians 0.7%. With regard to Nepal, it is most doubtful whether we have a functioning democracy and the monarchy is in suspended animation. With a land area of 147 thousand sq. km., it ranks 92nd, and with a population of 24.7 million, it ranks 45th in the world. With regard to religion, it is very difficult to obtain reliable figures. However, it is estimated that 80.6% are Hindus, 10.7% Buddhists and 4.2% Muslims. There are about one hundred thousand that practice Christianity. Thailand faces a virulent Muslim insurgency in the three southern provinces. Both countries have a history of communal harmony and religious tolerance. This may change in Nepal, if the Maoists have their say and ‘communal homelands’ are introduced and the seven-party government implements its ill-advised social policies.

The recent military coup d’etat in Thailand, although bloodless, raises questions about the future of democracy there and speculation is rife whether such a course of events would be possible in Nepal, given the fluid and volatile state of affairs. The army takeover was preceded by months of political agitation and unrest. PM Thaksin enjoyed considerable support in the countryside, but not in the capital region of Bangkok. He and his family were involved in widespread corruption. He adopted a very arrogant attitude and was unwilling to come to an understanding with the opposition parties. Above all, he ignored the public call by revered King Rama IX Bhumibol Aduladej to all political parties to swiftly settle their differences, and also underestimated the role of the army, thinking his position was impregnable.

Thailand was a stable democracy until Thaksin came on the scene. Political affairs had reached a cul-de-sac and the political impasse among the political parties had to be resolved somehow. A military takeover always has shades of authoritarian rule and there is no instance of a country that has benefited from prolonged military administration. In the case of Thailand, the junta has made it clear that it will not hold on to political power and that a return to civilian rule was immanent. It should also be noted that there was virtually no need for the Thai military to stem anarchy or to restore law and order, and the degree of public peace and quiet will allow for democratic elections to be held in a year. Also, the move had the blessing of the King. In the 5th century B.C., Sun Tzu wrote: ‘The general is the bulwark of the state, if the bulwark is complete at all points, the state will be strong; if the bulwark is defective the state will be weak.’ In the case of Thailand, it seems the military has indeed performed its function as a bulwark to the state although it can be said that saving democracy through undemocratic means can be summed up in doing the wrong thing for the right reason.

The situation in Nepal is entirely different. Her political leaders had made a mess of the whole state of affairs already when the army led by the King stepped in. For one thing, a state cannot be governed in the same way as an army, and democratic virtues such as humanity, justice and votes cannot be ordered by decree. Moreover, as far as this can be judged from a distant place, neither the King, the government he appointed nor the army he commanded was able to fully restore order in the whole country and to keep the Maoists in check. The Royal Nepalese Army beyond doubt succeeded in securing itself and the state against the Maoists, but failed to secure their defeat. Even if well-intentioned himself, the King was let down by his inadequate advisers and ministers, and did not find the means to integrate the political opposition. It must also be noted that the King’s step was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the Nepalese people as a great relief from the downright incompetence and interminable scams of our graft-prone politicians.

We are now witnessing the dismantling of democratic political institutions, including constitutional monarchy. It seems that no one and nothing can stop the headlong run to the abyss of totalitarian rule. The Supreme Court has already questioned the constitutionality of the present parliament declaring itself ‘supreme’, and above all the suspension of “The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990”. Nepalese people are gullible enough to believe that the current illusory peace will continue after the Maoists join the government. And PM Girija Prasad Koirala is senile enough to believe that he can ride the tiger.

The ground reality is that Maoist atrocities continue unabated and the law and order situation is surely and certainly deteriorating at a rapid tempo. Even the fragile parliament has been voicing its grave concerns on a daily basis, but the government ministers are deaf and dumb to this consternation. The so-called civic society has been rendered mute (or has been bought) with regard to the government’s servile appeasement policy towards the Maoists. This is tantamount to a death wish! Our current leaders have fallen into a trap and as usual do not realize that only good governance is really democratic.

In Nepal today, the seven-party government thinks that it can do anything and everything, even without a legitimate mandate from the people. Since the valid term of the ostensible parliament has long run out, its sessions are actually illegal and all its decisions are null and void, and therefore, not binding on the people. It has been reduced to an ineffectual talking shop. When the Maoists demand its dissolution, they are actually right, but for the wrong reasons!

Considering the dismal state of affairs, is the country then ripe for a military putsch? Drawing a parallel to Thailand again and given the many allegations of corruption and power abuse of Thaksin, it seems that many Thais are willing to give General Sondhi and the junta a chance to show the sincerity of their promises. The approving ‘nod’ from King Bhumibol will have had its share in convincing the Thai public. None of that is likely to happen in the same manner in Nepal. The only analogy that seems to hold true is the corruption that Nepal’s politicians appear to be ridden with. At this time there does not seem to be an officer in the Nepalese Army that has General Sondhi’s respectability and -given the recent record – an approval by King Gyanendra might just fall short of being contra-productive (at least from an international viewpoint). Last but not least, the army finds itself in a dispirited state.

An old military adage has it that ‘it is not the gun, but the man behind it that is important’. After the army was deployed against the Maoists, the officers’ corps was found wanting, specially the mid-ranking and senior echelons. After all, it is not the training alone that does the trick, but the will to fight. Promotion and postings were usually granted on the basis of seniority and connections, and experience and competence took a back seat. This led to incompetence and disgruntlement, eroding morale – which have yet to be corrected. After the so-called Jan Andolan II in April 2006 (People’s Movement, which was in fact a Maoist dominated uprising against an emaciated royal regime), the seven-party government – without any legal mandate – ignored possible future developments, and allowed the status of all the security forces to be rapidly eroded.

This opened the floodgates of conspiracy by unscrupulous and self-seeking senior officers. Acting against the army ethos, these started their despicable schemes for their personal aggrandizement: greasing the palms of ‘facilitators’ in the so-called power-centres, financing the media for character assassination, networking to influence people, including judges, in a negative manner, and disturbing the chain of command. All this has brought the once proud army to its knees. Girija and his Congress, the Communists and the Maoists can rest assured that there is no latent danger from the emasculated army.

From Frankfurt/Main and Kathmandu

The writers can be reached at: [email protected]

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start pounding the keyboard. Alan has a fascination with making video and video editing, so watch out if he points his Canon 7d in your direction.