Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Fables of General Sonthi

“How are you? I just heard the news about what's going on. It's been a while, in relative terms, since something like this has happened in Thailand.” – Me, this morning, in an email to a “pen-pal” friend

I am fine thank you.
Yeh, its the coup the military has taken over but there is no threat to the public ... the soldiers are there at the government area, infront of the PM's house and the big people..
The schools, uni and banks are on a holiday :) ”
Amrit, in Thailand

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The ancient Greek writer Aesop, of “Fables” fame, said “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

With this unfortunately true principle in mind, I have found it very hard to take the Thai military seriously when, after Thailand’s most recent military coup, it announced “We would like to insist that we have no intention of governing the country. We will return the power of constitutional monarchy back to Thai people as soon as possible to maintain peace and stability.”

Just last week, the chief of Thailand’s military (who is the first Muslim to head the Thai army), General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, ruled out a military solution to the country’s political squabbles. “Has the situation gone to that point? No. There is still a way to go by democratic means,” he had said. “We should stop talking about it. It is impossible.” Riiiight. Liar.

This is the same guy who, not so long ago, remarked that “Military coups are a thing of the past.”

Now, politicians lie all of the time. In fact, more often than not, it seems possessing an ability to lie is a prerequisite for becoming a successful politician in the first place, whatever or wherever the country might be (even though it may only be revealed later what kind of a liar that particular person is). But Gen. Sonthi isn’t a politician by trade, he’s a soldier. He has said, and I quote, that “Political troubles should be resolved by politicians.”

If Sonthi’s making a move into politics, he’s making a bad start by proving he doesn’t mean what he says beforehand, instead of doing so later. I guess all green politicians make mistakes from time to time.

Speaking on behalf of those behind the coup, General Prapas Sakultanak justified the coup by speaking of the government’s ineffectiveness and division, saying “Most people don't trust the government because there are many signs of corruption.”

Really? The Thai people don’t trust the government? Why, exactly, should they trust the military either, when it says it wishes democracy for the Thai people? Eighteen attempted or successful military-led coups d’etat in 74 years of modern Thai constitutional monarchy seems to point to an almost undeniable conclusion - that the only thing those who head the Thai military really care about is their own power and influence.

When things don’t go your way in a true democracy, the way forward is not to seize power, suspend the national constitution, terminate the parliament and courts, and declare martial law. If yours is a nation governed by the concrete rules of law and not the arbitrary rules of men, then the law is to be respected no matter how much division between the people there is. There’s really no reason for argument, here, unless your country is wracked by violence and declaring martial law is the only way to bring about law and order once again.

Anything less than this sort of respect for the rule of law in a democracy by those who are bound to uphold or protect it means that your democracy is constantly walking a tightrope, always in danger of falling off without any net to catch it. And others are usually left to deal with the mess.

In a true democracy, there is no question that “political troubles should be resolved by politicians.” Civilian oversight of the military is as necessary for a healthy, stable democracy as regularly-held, free and fair elections, a free press, freedom of assembly, and dissent. And if you’re a politician - or a soldier - who expects to gain the trust of voters, you should at least know that you have to keep a good number of the promises or pledges that you make, even if you’re forced by either necessity or expediency to break a good number of others, or to fib from time to time.

But if you’re an unelected military chief, and you’re quoted as saying to the public “Military coups are a thing of the past,” and then that supposedly antiquated practice suddenly rears its ugly head again while you’re at the helm of the armed forces, surely you realize the damage you’re doing to your reputation as a potentially reputable, trustworthy figure. It doesn’t matter if a coup is expected or not – when you give your word like this, and then break it, it should be that much harder in the future to gain the trust of your people...even if you're friends with the nation's beloved king.

There are likely those who, with sunshiny utopian delusions in their hearts, will take generals like Sonthi and Prapas and others of their ilk at their word, even though these men have by their actions of late shown that they deserve not one iota of the benefit of anyone’s doubt.

Will the moral of this developing story be, like that ancient Fables’ moral, “After all is said and done, more is said than done”? This really depends on whatever fable the modern General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin presents Thailand, and the world, with. He’s already off to a bad start. It isn’t as if military coups are usually carried out with the best interests of the people in mind.

Since it will likely be coup leaders, and not the people they’re supposed to protect, who will be deciding who the next prime minister of Thailand is, I’m not encouraged by comments from General Sonthi like “We have two weeks. After two weeks, we will step out.” The Thai military, though it has a history of doing so, should not have even stepped in to begin with this time around.

One step forward, two steps back. Three steps forward, four steps back.

Either way, democracy suffers.

Every moment now is one during which the foundations of democratic governance in Thailand whither under the influence, or direct control, of the government by the military. How convenient for the coup leadership that no timetable is being given for when the power to determine which direction the government will take will actually be handed back to the Thai people, instead of unelected soldiers.

Until I see otherwise, I’ll remain a skeptic. There is always hope, though, that I could be wrong about this.

If anything, these events should help us to appreciate how lucky we really, truly, genuinely are…and that education, staying informed, and continual vigilance is required if things are to remain that way.

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