Coup and Calm in Bangkok Concern in Kathmandu!

Lecturing, listening and learning

In a revealing insight into the surreal political atmosphere prevailing here, the public was treated to the bizarre spectacle of a bloodless military coup d’etat in Thailand being taken calmly and coolly in Bangkok but generating an angry fury in Kathmandu’s over-heated political street!

Thailand’s latest coup, its 18th since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy there in 1932, may have brought to an end 15 years of experiments with democracy. But, as far as Thailand and Bangkok in particular are concerned, it was a remarkably smooth and peaceful affair. Indeed, so much so that a Western TV correspondent described it as the most “people-friendly coup” that he had ever heard of.

Taken in The Stride

Newspaper photographs and TV footage of the post-19 September military take-over of the helm of the Thai state clearly indicated that, as far as the overwhelming majority of the Thai population is concerned, it was taken in their stride. Else, what do scenes of smiling people and a rush for photographs with soldiers manning tanks on the streets of Bangkok suggest?

Indeed, how else is one to interpret the offering of flowers by women to crews on their tanks in the Thai capital’s main thoroughfares or even of Buddhist monks smilingly posing before those military machines?

Apart from the fact that it was a bloodless affair, the coup was legitimized by the Royal Palace and, more importantly, greeted by many Thais with relief. Bangkok quickly swung back to normal, even as far as its notorious traffic is concerned, while the stock market too did the same, within days. Many in Thailand, appalled by the mishandling of Muslim-related issues in southern Thailand, are now optimistic that that question may be resolved, given, among other things, that the new junta chief is a Muslim.

While the Thai military acting under the command of General Sondhi Boonvaratglin moved quickly to take control of the reigns of power, banning political parties and their activities, and imposed restrictions on the media, the junta explained that the military would take control of the country until there was a new Prime Minister. It also promised new elections within a year.

The ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was away attending the UN General Assembly had, hours earlier before the coup got underway, declared a state of emergency from New York and announced the removal of the army chief. The coup comes after months of political turmoil in Thailand directed against Thaksin, a billionaire whose Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide victory in 2001 but who then rapidly got embroiled in a financial scandal forcing him in April this year to call snap polls.

Though his party won that vote it was boycotted by the opposition. Thaksin himself was subsequently criticized by King Bhumbibol and the election was annulled by the court though he continued in a care-taker capacity. It is surely remarkable that despite condemnation by the EU and Australia, Washington and Tokyo have been remarkably restrained in their reactions. What cannot also be lost sight of is that the main aggrieved party – Thaksin – did not challenge the coup or term it illegal. Instead, speaking from London after arrival from New York, he merely called for speedy snap elections and confirmed that he was bowing out of politics.

Significantly, especially in a Nepali context, New Delhi did not take sides, even as its Ministry of External Affairs pronounced that it would continue to do business with the new government. Furthermore, it did not issue a travel advisory for Indians travelling to Thailand. That seemed to be in accord with the fact that foreign tourists in Bangkok did not feel threatened in any way and continue to enjoy the multi-faceted pleasures that Thailand, including Bangkok, have to offer them.

Against such a backdrop, the bitter and categorical condemnation by Nepalese political leaders of the coup, including of the Thai Monarch – once widely projected and praised by them as a model for our own King – would seem to be completely out of synch. It can only be explained by their continuing animus against the King and the Army – a matter of satisfaction, no doubt, for the Maoists.

Of course, one could also explain such a collective knee-jerk reaction as a reflection of their nagging sense of unease stemming from their tenuous hold on power given that the Maoists, not the most exemplary paragons of democracy, are warming their political bed and could, seemingly at any time, shove them off their bunk.

While their queasiness is plainly also a reflection of their lack of effective or unified governance, and clear and growing manifestations of public disenchantment six months after the April Uprising, their barbs at the Nepal Army, even shorn of the ‘royal’ prefix, clearly betrays their lack of confidence in a traditional national institution that has served the county well through the vicissitudes of history.

Viewed in retrospect through the lens of a US National Democratic Institute survey, conducted not long after the April Uprising crested indicating that the Monarchy still enjoyed the support of 48 percent of the population, their nervousness is not very difficult to fathom. And this, particularly given the loud claims being made from public rostrums for months on end that “all” the Nepalese people are for a republic.

Incidentally, one would be remiss as an analyst if attention were not drawn, in this context, to the fact that the great self-proclaimed votaries of the “right to information” and a “free and unfettered press” – as, for example, the Kathmandu Post, the Himalayan Times and the Rising Nepal – have consciously decided not to inform their readers of this particular piece of political intelligence.

Coming now to comments by our politicians, we have Prime Minister Koirala terming the Thai military coup as “unfortunate” coupled with the caveat “it can never happen here.” UML boss, Madhav Kumar Nepal, had another take. While being equally critical of the coup, he declared: “A military coup like in Thailand cannot be ruled out.” Furthermore, witness the spectacle of six MPs calling on HoR Speaker to adopt a resolution condemning the Thai coup. Or that of a Maoist commissar attempting to use the example of the Thai event as a means to prevent the break up of strained ties between themselves and the SPA.

None of those visionary gentlemen, let it be stated loud and clear, have bothered to focus on the systemic failure of Thai democracy: else, why should a popularly elected PM not be allowed to function? Or why, if the individual concerned is a crook, is he elected, and that too with such a convincing lead, in the very first place?

Finally, they have deliberately sought to pull the wool over the eyes of simple Nepali folk who perhaps do not know that military coup d’etats have been more frequent in countries NOT ruled or headed by a King! If any anyone has any doubts, may I recall the coups that have taken place in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar in the South Asian region or in a plethora of countries in Africa not to mention, of course, those that were, for a long period of time, endemic in the so-called banana republics of the Caribbean and Latin America? I don’t recall any of them being Kingdoms.

Finally, military coups and surreptitious power grabs are not unknown either in the Communist world.

M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.