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GUEST COLUMN

Thai establishment fears a more open and democratic society

Five years ago, on September 19, 2006, the military staged a coup that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Tanks rolled onto the streets of Bangkok. Some Thais were seen offering flowers to the so-called patriotic soldiers. They accused Thaksin of triggering the worst crisis in the country's history. But little did they know that the coup that was supposed to kill the "Thaksin disease" was indeed another kind of disease that severely undermined Thai democracy.They thought that they were successful in deracinating Thaksin's political influence by launching an unlawful coup. Five years on, in 2011, Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has assumeed power through a legitimate electoral process. Not only did the coup-makers fail to eliminate Thaksin, the military and the old establishment together have further intensified the crisis. Violent confrontations have become normal events in Thailand.The military and the establishment collaborated with the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to create a state of ungovernability for the Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat regimes. They employed the hand of the courts to remove these two pro-Thaksin prime ministers. At the same time, they defended their illegal behaviour as a way to save democracy from the Thaksin cronies, when in fact what they really defended were their own power interests.No matter how immoral or corrupt Thaksin might have become, toppling him in a coup was wrong and deplorable. If Thaksin has to be responsible for the protracted crisis in the post-coup period, then his enemies in high places must also be blamed for prolonging such crisis. Throughout the past five years, the political stalemate that has shaken the nation - playing with the Thai people's emotions and deeply polarising our society - has unveiled so many dark secrets in politics. For one thing, it has revealed the anxiety on the part of the old establishment about a more open society. This has now clearly emerged as a threat to their power position. From this view, Thaksin is not really a menace to the Thai elite - an open political space is. Thus, it is crucial to look back over the past five years and examine the changes in the Thai political landscape since the coup of 2006.I am organising a one-day conference entitled, "Five Years After the Coup: Thailand's Political Developments Since Thaksin's Downfall", at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, on September 19. The primary aim of the conference is to discuss the lessons learnt (or not learnt) from the coup, to explore the role of the key players, and to investigate issues that generated the legitimacy crises in Thailand.I have brought together leading experts on Thai politics to provide an in-depth examination of Thailand's unending political and social crisis. The first session will deal with the impact of the coup in the political domain. Federico Ferrara, an assistant professor from the City University of Hong Kong, will kick off the conference with his talk on "Unfinished Business: The Contagion of Conflict Over a Century of Thai Political Development." This talk will be followed by one from Pitch Pongsawat from Chualongkorn University entitled, "Four Forms of Democracy in Thailand's Current Democratisation."The second session will focus on the theme, "Defending the Old Political Consensus: The Military and the Monarchy." James Ockeys of Canterbury University will elaborate on the role of the military in the political turmoil. His paper is entitled, "Broken Power: The Thai Military in the Aftermath of the 2006 Coup."The next two speakers will touch upon a sensitive subject: the monarchy. Thongchai Winichakul of the University of Wisconsin-Madison will present his thought-provoking paper, "The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room." Meanwhile, David Streckfuss, an independent scholar, will deliver his speech on "Freedom and Silencing Under the Neo-Absolutist Monarch Regime in Thailand, 2001-2006."In the third session, the discussion will concentrate on new political discourses and players. Michael Nelson from Thammasat University will speak on, "Vote No! The PAD's Decline from Powerful Movement to Political Sect?" Nick Nostitz, a journalist who has followed the red-shirt movement closely since its inception, will give a talk entitled, "The Red Shirts: From Anti-Coup Protesters to Social Mass Movement." Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, also a founder of the New Mandala website, will present a discussion entitled "Is Peasant Politics in Thailand Civil?"For the final session, the attention will move over to the legitimacy crises since the 2006 coup. Marc Askew from Melbourne University will speak on the crisis in the South, "Shooting Themselves In the Foot: The Army and the South After the Coup." I will close the conference with a talk on the Thai-Cambodian conflict, "From Marketplace Back to Battlefield: Thai-Cambodian Relations in the Age of Militarised Politics."Details of all the events can be found at http://www.iseas.edu.sg. I recommend that the traditional elite and the military send their representatives to the conference, I order to understand that the outside world has changed so much and that the idea of a military coup is obsolete.

Paving Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Follow Pavin at www.facebook.com/pavinchachavalpongpun.


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