Some time, in some form
STAGING a bloodless coup to overthrow the government of Thaksin Shinawatra was, relatively speaking, the easy bit. Now Thailand's military chiefs face the more difficult job of honouring their promise to restore democracy. They started, on October 1st, by appointing as interim “civilian” prime minister General Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander who retired from the service in 2003. He is respected for having rooted out corruption in the armed forces and for being a devout Buddhist. By choosing one of their own, however, the generals have only added to the doubts about whether they really intend, as they said, to let go of their new-found power.
In 1992, a year after Thailand's last coup, when troops fired on pro-democracy protesters, General Surayud commanded a special-forces unit that took part in the suppression. But he was widely believed when he insisted that he had not ordered his soldiers to shoot. All in all, he said, the experience convinced him that the army should not be involved in politics.
Before appointing the general, the junta and its officials had hoped that foreign criticism of their coup was subsiding. A senior Thai diplomat played down America's decision to suspend $24m in military aid, arguing that this was simply the “mandatory minimum action” required under American law. That may be wishful thinking. A White House statement on October 3rd said further sanctions were being considered. The statement also demanded the swift restoration of civil rights, “noting” rather than welcoming the appointment of the new prime minister. The coup has probably also killed a proposed free-trade pact with the United States: America will negotiate such an agreement only with an elected government, and Thailand will not have such a government until after the expiry next July of George Bush's permission from Congress to strike such deals.
General Surayud has begun choosing a cabinet. This will consist mainly of technocrats such as Pridiyathorn Devakula, the central-bank governor, who is tipped for finance minister. The new cabinet is to run the country while a new constitution is written and put to a referendum. Then, around a year from now, elections will be held. Even if the generals let the cabinet do its job without meddling, this plan could face disruption. Though the junta will have a strong hand in selecting the constitution's authors, the process could easily descend into squabbling, causing the timetable for elections to slip. A pro-democracy movement is already stirring, and bigger protests are likely after the junta lifts its restriction on political gatherings.
Another danger, from the opposite direction, is that having been rid of an autocratic and allegedly corrupt machine-politician, many Thais will swallow the idea that their country would be better off without politicians altogether. The junta shows signs of thinking this way. It has banned anyone who has belonged to a political party in the past two years from the constitution-writing committee. Meanwhile, the country's two main parties are in poor shape and no position to answer back. Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) has no leader now that the former prime minister, who is currently exiled in London, has resigned from the job. Many other senior figures have quit the party, hoping to escape the consequences of a new law that bans from politics for five years the officials of any party dissolved for electoral fraud. TRT was being prosecuted for this before the coup, and the case is almost certain to be revived.
The second party, the Democrats, under their well-liked but ineffectual leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, have performed lamentably during Thailand's long crisis. They have mostly sat dumbly, showing no sign of being capable of leading the country. And they too face dissolution for alleged fiddling in an election in April. Unless one of the parties can reassert itself, the scene may be set for a return to the weak, short-lived coalition governments seen before Mr Thaksin came to power.
This would make it easy for the country's traditional elite, centred around King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and including the senior army officers who instigated the coup, to reassert themselves. It would not be much of a “return to democracy”