From Time Asia

When the cat’s away, the mice will play. And play they did last week in Thailand. In a bloodless coup led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the military ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from power while he was attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. The coup has been effectively endorsed by the country’s beloved monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and it’s popular with the people of Bangkok, who have long wanted Thaksin out. But it stains Thailand’s young democracy, emboldens other authoritarian regimes in Asia, and demoralizes Asians fighting for freedom elsewhere in the region. Thailand’s military leadership has removed the man who had the strongest electoral mandate in Thai history, the only Prime Minister ever to be re-elected (in a landslide victory as recently as February 2005), and the leader whose party, Thai Rak Thai, was likely to win a majority in the next polls, which were scheduled for later this year.

Some argue that Thailand’s generals did the right thing—they removed a leader whose business dealings tarnished his government, and resolved a political stalemate that had paralyzed the country all year. By going outside the system to save the system, however, the now ruling “old guard”—the military leadership and its backers under the rubric of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy—has done more harm than good. For a start, it has shown an apparent indifference toward the majority of Thais, especially the rural population that still staunchly supports Thaksin. Their voices have been silenced by the refusal of the Council to hold a fresh ballot for at least a year. Equally troubling, the Council has bypassed or undermined democratic institutions such as parliament and the Constitutional Court, which renders judgment on issues such as the validity of elections. By asserting that their actions have the blessing of the King, the coupmakers have also risked jeopardizing his important position as Thailand’s traditional neutral peacemaker. And by removing Thaksin through undemocratic means, the coupmakers have allowed him to become the ousted democrat, despite the damage he did to Thailand’s democracy, and thereby to claim the label of martyr—which could help him return to power one day.

There are no checks on the Council’s power as it reconfigures the structure of the political system. Whether in the turbulent south or in the hinterland beyond Bangkok, the military government, which has no real ties to legitimate local leaders, cannot provide effective representation. With new political parties forbidden, public gatherings and local media restricted, and foreign TV censored, even those in the capital who appear relieved to have Thaksin removed are likely to grow increasingly impatient. Gagging a populace that has been used to breathing freely since the last military coup occurred 15 years ago may well result in disenchantment and protest, and potentially sow even greater instability.

Now the Council faces the considerable challenge of actually governing. The military, however, is divided and lacks clear policies. Unless it reaches out to a wide range of civic groups, it will likely rely for direction on traditional political elites who are close to the generals. Yet it was precisely the inability of these people to offer fresh economic alternatives and to guarantee a social safety net for as many Thais as possible that enabled Thaksin to win office in the first place on a populist platform. Whether it’s opening up the finance sector or shrinking the nation’s bureaucracy, the challenges of the global economy require fresh ideas, and the Council is not well suited to the task.

While the coup may have been politically expedient, the short-term gains may have more serious long-term costs. It is essential that the military council allows space for political institutions—especially political parties—to get stronger. It is equally vital that, in rewriting the constitution (for the 17th time), they ensure that the process be transparent and representative—for example, it should include supporters of Thai Rak Thai. The Council says fresh elections will be held in a year; that’s too long to wait. It is only through a return to genuinely accountable, elected government that Thailand can have long-lasting stability and prosperity. A house full of mice eating at the foundations of Thailand’s democracy is a health hazard to all.