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Thai Military Overthrows Government, Declares Martial Law

September 19, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to help us understand what’s going on with this still-moving story, we’re joined by Catharin Dalpino, director of the Thai studies program at Georgetown University. She served as deputy assistant secretary of state during the first Clinton administration.

And Richard Doner is associate professor of political science at Emory University. He’s written extensively about Thailand and was last there this summer.

Catharin Dalpino, we’re in the early stages. A lot of the information is very sketchy. But in a nutshell, what does it look like to you? What’s happening?

CATHARIN DALPINO, Georgetown University: I think what we’ve seen so far is a military intervention to force the conclusion to a longstanding political situation, but not a return to military rule as Thailand saw in the ’50s and ’60s, for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: Longstanding instability. Tell us a little bit about that. What’s been happening over the last year, really?

CATHARIN DALPINO: Well, there has been instability, but also a certain amount of stability. It’s not quite that easy. There’s been a protracted political crisis based on an election and an attempt to unseat the prime minister, primarily by a popular uprising in the Bangkok classes.

Elections have returned him as prime minister, but it’s clear that a significant part of Bangkok has not been with him. What happened today, I think, was an attempt to basically force the prime minister to come to a conclusion that perhaps might have been a couple of months down the road, with elections that were scheduled in November.

What we won’t see is a lot of negotiation that will go on behind the scenes in the next couple of days, so this is a very incomplete process.

Concentration of power

Richard Doner
Emory University
There's been tremendous concern and frustration over [Prime Minister Thaksin's] concentration of power ... at least this is the allegation -- [of] a small number of businessmen and, indeed, cronies close to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Doner, how do you describe what's happened in Thailand today?

RICHARD DONER, Emory University: I would agree with what Professor Dalpino just said. I would add, however, that something about the roots of the frustration, with regard to the Bangkok elite, about Prime Minister Thaksin.

There's been tremendous concern and frustration over his concentration of power, his concentration of power with regard to enriching a small number -- at least this is the allegation -- a small number of businessmen and, indeed, cronies close to him. And this was kind of brought to a head by his sale of telecommunications assets recently to a Singapore company, a sale that is alleged to have been done without him having to pay taxes. And that was a sale of, in many people's view, national assets.

There are also some more immediate catalysts, I think. One is the view that he has been meddling with military promotions. Another is perception that there's been a lot of tension between the prime minister and the king. And, finally, I think there has been some concern on the part of the military that violence between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces was poised to break out and that they had to intervene.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Catharin Dalpino, the prime minister has won several elections. He's quite popular in the rural areas, I understand. Tell us a little bit about his background.

CATHARIN DALPINO: He is a former policeman-turned-businessman. His strength was in telecommunications. And in contrast to a lot of more traditional Thai politicians, he understood mass communications and used them in the campaigns.

He did win the imagination of the rural area, which had been a purview of the Thai military politically for several decades. And he's seen as something of a popular figure in the rural areas, as something of a populist in the Bangkok classes.

I'd also add that the situation in southern Thailand contributes to this, as well. General Sondhi, who has led this action today, is a Muslim, which is the minority group in Thailand. And there was a perception that the present administration was contributing to that problem, as well, and that's part of the mix, too.

Role of military

Catharin Dalpino
Georgetown University
[I]t's interesting about the Thaksin administration, it's Thailand's first elected government that was one party. And historically they have been coalition governments. That made a lot of the political classes rather nervous, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Doner, tell us a little bit more about the role that the military plays in Thailand.

RICHARD DONER: The military historically has been quite important from about the post-war period. Up to the late '80s, Thailand was essentially run by military-dominated governments. After that, civilian governments took over, with a short exception of the early '90s.

And after the early '90s, the military basically committed itself to pulling back and not being involved in politics at all. And I think it's taken a tremendous amount of frustration with Prime Minister Thaksin, as well as perceptions of threats on the part of the military to its own integrity, plus one other issue, one other factor that may have encouraged the military to act. And that is the perception that the monarch is not satisfied or has not been satisfied with the rule of Prime Minister Thaksin.

So the military's intervention here is an exception to the last 15 or 16 years of Thai democracy; indeed, Thailand has been seen as a showcase of democratic development.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, staying with you, so when we say that this is a military coup, what exactly does that mean? Is the military itself united, or is this a division within the military?

RICHARD DONER: It's unclear. There is certainly some division within the military. The prime minister has a lot of support from one of the classes, Class 10, within the military. On the other hand, this coup has been led by the head of the armed forces, General Sondhi.

It's not clear how unified the military is at this point. And it's also not clear exactly what they're going to do. Presumably there has emerged something called a military reform council, which has -- and the head of which has actually met with the king. And it's assumed that the military is going to ask the king to name a new, temporary prime minister, will also call for a revision of the 2000 constitution, and eventually for new elections.

So I presume that what they are going for is a return to civilian rule, but under a different constitution.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that about the military's role here?

CATHARIN DALPINO: Well, a lot of -- I agree with all of that, but a lot of that was in the works anyway. An election was scheduled for November. Constitutional reform was an important issue to close some of the loopholes in the 1997 constitution, certainly.

Something that is typical though, it's interesting about the Thaksin administration, it's Thailand's first elected government that was one party. And historically they have been coalition governments. That made a lot of the political classes rather nervous, as well.

But I think that Professor Doner is right that what will go forward probably will be something that looks like a caretaker government until there can be an election. Ironically, Thaksin is himself a caretaker prime minister, or was since last April.

Allegiance to the monarchy

Richard Doner
Emory University
This is all very, very murky. All we can say at this point is that there have been some strong indications that the king, as I said before, has been dissatisfied with the Thaksin administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you've both mentioned the king and the monarchy here. The coup leaders are pledging allegiance to the king. Why is that important? What role does the king play?

CATHARIN DALPINO: The king plays an extremely important role. And really the shoe needs to drop in terms of discerning what his attitudes towards this are. It may be expressed explicitly; it may be expressed more subtly than that. But really this process, whatever it is, can't be complete until there's an understanding on where the king is on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Professor Doner? Is it possible that the king would have known about this? Does he play any particular role in a relationship with the military?

RICHARD DONER: This is all very, very murky. All we can say at this point is that there have been some strong indications that the king, as I said before, has been dissatisfied with the Thaksin administration.

And most explicitly, that one of his closest advisers, a member of the Privy Council, General Prem, and a former prime minister who is held in great esteem, has made a number of comments and, indeed, appeared publicly in military uniform and stated that the military should be faithful to the king, not to the government.

U.S. interests

Catharin Dalpino
Georgetown University
We have a strong economic relationship, but some things need to get back on track, such as negotiations for a free trade agreement that were suspended over this political crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor Dalpino, just in the last minute we have, what are the U.S. interests here, either economically or strategically?

CATHARIN DALPINO: Thailand is our oldest treaty ally in Asia. We have a strong security relationship. We have a strong economic relationship, but some things need to get back on track, such as negotiations for a free trade agreement that were suspended over this political crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Doner, what would you add to the U.S. interests here?

RICHARD DONER: There are significant economic interests. All of the big U.S. auto firms have major activities. Thailand is a source of major computer production for many American firms.

Thailand, as I said before, is also kind of a showcase democracy. This is a country that has evolved out of military rule. And so there are concerns that, if this could happen in Thailand, it could happen other places.

And finally, as Professor Dalpino mentioned, there are concerns about what is going on in the south. And as she mentioned, there are questions -- what has happened in the south is what began as a regional rebellion for more ethnic and national autonomy has turned much more into an Islamic type of resistance under the policies of Prime Minister Prem. And that certainly poses some problems for the global war on terror.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Doner, Catharin Dalpino, thank you both very much.

CATHARIN DALPINO: Thank you.