The persistent myth of the 'good' coup
Over the past week, one myth has almost achieved the status of "fact" - that pro-Thaksin forces made the first move on the night of September 19. This myth justifies the coup-makers.
They were "acting in self-defence". They "had no choice". In some tellings, this sequence even explains why the generals had to rip up the Constitution so quickly - because the pro-Thaksin aggression forfeited all constitutional legitimacy.
This myth is not being peddled by the coup-makers themselves. They say they moved because of corruption, disunity and threats to the monarchy. These are long-term reasons, and straight out of the textbook.
Rather, this myth is being peddled by people who are surprised and a little ashamed to find themselves supporting a coup. This myth makes the coup reactive and defensive. It gives a little salve for some last shreds of democratic conscience. As a senior and irreproachably democratic figure told Chang Noi last week: "I'm sad that I'm not angry."
But there does not seem to be any evidence to support this myth at all. There were no opposing troop movements on the night of the coup, no reports of armed clashes or even bloodless stand-offs. News that troops were on the move started to spread before 9pm. Thaksin appeared on television around 10pm with a statement that showed he was reacting to a move by his opponents. But by that time, Government House was being surrounded, and Thaksin's point man, General Ruengroj, was switching sides.
General Saprang Kalayanamitr, commander of the Third Army, said last week that the planning began around seven months in advance. That probably means at the time of the Shin Corp sale, when the outburst of anger showed a coup could rely on popular support in the capital. General Sonthi's remark about two days' lead-time probably means that was when the plan was activated. He is also on record as saying that the precise moment was chosen because his troops had positional advantage over their opponents. Among the coup-makers there is no recourse to the argument that this was a reactive or pre-emptive strike. It was planned, deliberate, strategic, methodical.
In a slight variant, some have argued that General Sonthi "had to" move because Thaksin was preparing to smash the PAD demonstrations and declare a state of emergency. Chang Noi would welcome evidence to support all these arguments, but there doesn't seem to be a shred.
Who benefits most from this coup? What changed since April, when His Majesty the King stated that the use of Clause 7 would be inappropriate, and urged the judiciary to use methods available under the Constitution? Perhaps the answers to these two questions are related. Perhaps too we have to think back to May 1992, and the aftermath of the killings on Rajdamnoen Avenue. Soldiers were spat upon in the streets, and refused service in shops and hospitals. The Army lost face, prestige, budget, secondary forms of employment, opportunities for corruption and its special privileged role in the state. Ever since, the Army has been searching for rehabilitation. It has pushed for a role in development work, drug busting, even tourism. This coup delivers redemption from the catastrophe of 1992. The current craze for "combat chic" may not last, and the military officer elite will not fully recover their role as a political caste. But they are back at the centre of Thai politics - with a vengeance.
But they and their Bangkok supporters are marooned on an island. On one side there is a sea of international opinion, appalled at how the beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia could have bombed itself back into the political stone age. On the other is the rural mass, probably unsurprised but massively resentful at this treatment of the first political leader they had embraced as their own. Why should they ever again listen to city slickers preaching to them about democracy?
A second myth is right there in the coup-makers' first line of self-justification: that this coup will overcome disunity. Reconciliation does not come out of the barrel of a gun. Unity cannot descend from above. The coup makers themselves are divided; the armed forces are divided; and the country is now divided worse than before. Moreover, things are likely to get worse.
History tells us that no political regime flourishes in Thailand when economic growth falls much below 5 per cent. Looking ahead to next year, that figure already seems unattainable. Growth has slackened as a result of world conditions. Investments have been delayed and will be delayed yet further. Tourism will suffer. Slow growth will mean rising unemployment, and faltering tourism will mean less income for a lot of little people. Bread can only be substituted with circuses over the short term. The political attention span of Bangkok's middle-class is notoriously short. The coup-installed government will try to stave off boredom by revelations of corruption. The Khunying Jaruvan show will run and run. But the series will only become a hit if the plot has lots of blood and gore. Again, history tells us that Thai coup regimes always promise to clean up corruption, but regularly fail. This corruption circus will certainly fail if it does not feature the big star that everybody expects. Any hint of the usual kind of amnesty deal will see the ratings collapse.
The honeymoon will not survive the rows that will erupt over the drafting of a new constitution. This is an area where there are real rifts of ideology. Since the experience with the 1997 charter, more people understand the importance of a constitution, and more will want a say when the new one is promulgated. Take the matter of whether the Senate should be appointed or elected (and how, in either case), or whether there should be any Senate at all. This issue has the power to revive ideas and partisanship that are backed by a half century of history.
A conservative shift in the political regime emboldens the more conservative elements in the political culture. The bureaucratic old guard was pushed into the background by Thaksin, and has been curdling resentment for five years. Over just the last week, old-guard health bureaucrats have begun mobilising to kill the Bt30-per-visit healthcare scheme by administrative carpet-bombing, and fiscal conservatives are plotting to wipe away all the Thaksin government's social schemes. Such forces are stupid and insensitive enough to ignore the political consequences.