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08BANGKOK1293 THAI DEMOCRACY ABROGATED AND RESTORED: LESSONS LEARNED

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“151519″,”4/28/2008 8:31″,”08BANGKOK1293″,”Embassy Bangkok”,

 

“CONFIDENTIAL”,”07BANGKOK5718″,”VZCZCXRO9460

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E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/28/2018

TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PHUM, KDEM, TH

SUBJECT: THAI DEMOCRACY ABROGATED AND RESTORED: LESSONS

LEARNED

 

REF: 07 BANGKOK 5718 (SUCCESSION MECHANICS)

 

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Classified By: Ambassador Eric G. John, reason: 1.4 (b) and (d).

 

SUMMARY

——-

 

1. (C) Despite Thailand\’s peaceful transition back to an

elected government, underlying tensions between certain

social groups remain unresolved. Many Thais initially

accepted the September 2006 coup because it offered a way out

of a grueling political crisis and appeared to have the

King\’s support. Thais increasingly soured on the

military-appointed interim administration as it proved

incapable of dealing with difficult problems, but the Army

preserved some of its credibility by allowing elections to

take place. We do not rule out the possibility of the

military taking sides in a continuing conflict between

representatives of different social classes; based on the

2006-2007 experience, Thais may trust the military to return

to the barracks after political interventions of limited

duration. It is unclear how changes in the role of the

monarchy would affect the likelihood or dynamics of any

potential future coups. Some informed observers speculate

that the King\’s death might spark extra-constitutional action

of some sort by the military. The formation of a pro-Thaksin

administration in February 2008 reveals limitations on the

Palace\’s power. Foreign pressure contributed to the return

to democratically-elected government but did not appear

decisive; most Thais in the governing class seemed to accept

USG restrictions on assistance as a reasonable response to

the 2006 coup, and the fact that these restrictions were

grounded in law helped to preserve good will toward the U.S.

End Summary.

 

WHAT PROMPTED THE COUP?

———————–

 

2. (SBU) Military leaders launched the 2006 coup d\’etat

during a time of protracted political crisis. In 2005, Prime

Minister Thaksin Shinawatra\’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party,

using a combination of populist appeal and money politics,

won an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Thaksin

absorbed into TRT the most successful power brokers in the

North and Northeast, as well as their political machines and

networks. As it looked increasingly improbable that existing

mechanisms could check Thaksin\’s power, protestors concerned

by allegations of corruption and autocratic practices took to

the streets, and some prominent figures called

(unsuccessfully) for King Bhumibol to intervene under the

cover of a vague constitutional provision. Army Commander

Sonthi Boonyaratglin and his colleagues launched their coup

only after months of widespread angst, periods of mass

protests in Bangkok, and when faced with upcoming elections

that appeared certain to reinforce Thaksin\’s political

position. In the immediate aftermath, many in Bangkok\’s

middle and upper classes welcomed the coup, and few prominent

figures denounced it.

 

WHY SUCH TEPID OPPOSITION TO THE COUP?

————————————–

 

3. (C) The coup leaders benefited from an appearance of

Palace endorsement. King Bhumibol publicly signaled his

acquiescence (if not support) when granting an audience to

Sonthi and the other coupmakers involved on the night of

their coup. Like many of their predecessors, the leaders of

the 2006 coup portrayed themselves as forced to act to

protect the King, highlighting their allegiance when

identifying themselves as (roughly translated) \”the Council

for Democratic Reform under the Monarchy\” (CDRM), and

receiving the King\’s imprimatur in the form of a Royal

Command appointing Sonthi as the head of the CDRM. We

believe signals of Palace support — or, at a minimum,

acceptance — played an important role in promoting the

public\’s acceptance of the coup, although other key factors

included widespread frustration with the ongoing political

crisis and faith in the coup leaders\’ promise to hold

 

BANGKOK 00001293 002.2 OF 005

 

elections in approximately one year.

 

4. (C) Politicians, with their lucrative livelihood at stake,

were the primary figures pressing publicly for a quick return

to a democratically-elected government. Even before the

coup, established Thai NGOs — which traditionally focus on

rural development — for the most part stayed away from

debates about national politics. After the coup, few NGOs

appeared to contribute meaningfully to pro-/anti-coup

discourse; the most visible and active NGOs were newly-formed

partisan organizations clearly linked to Thaksin, while even

smaller anti-coup groups that emerged were suspected to be

mere fronts established by the deposed PM\’s allies.

 

5. (C) Some student groups adopted positions toward the coup,

but students did not mobilize demonstrations, and their

collective opinion did not become a meaningful factor, unlike

in prior eras. In recent years, political issues generally

have not energized Thai students, especially at Bangkok\’s

most prestigious universities; student groups for the most

part were not involved in the pre-coup anti-Thaksin protests.

It appears that, under contemporary conditions, the

authorities would have to egregiously affront the

sensibilities of the elite and middle class in order to

generate a widespread student response.

 

FOREIGN PRESSURE NOT DECISIVE

—————————–

 

6. (C) The coup leaders and the interim administration had

many concerns influencing their willingness to proceed with

December\’s election, including their physical safety and

prospects for retaining political influence. The stakes for

the coup leaders were enormous; they had overthrown one of

Thailand\’s most powerful and vindictive Prime Ministers.

Thus, we find it difficult to imagine any set of foreign

sanctions that could have had a decisive impact while also

being compatible with the longstanding friendship between

Thailand and the West.

 

7. (C) The interim authorities at times demonstrated a

willingness to treat foreign attitudes as peripheral. For

example, the authorities were slow to rescind martial law in

much of the country, even though Surayud offered us his

assurance he would proceed rapidly on this oft-raised issue.

Nevertheless, the Thai did indicate sensitivity to foreign

opinion. When the interim cabinet was inaugurated in October

2006, King Bhumibol specified that repairing Thailand\’s

international image should be a top priority, along with

helping flood victims.

 

8. (C) While we believe USG restrictions on assistance to the

post-coup regime did not place decisive pressure on the

interim administration, our actions clearly registered our

view with the Thai public, and especially with those people

with ties to the Thaksin administration. The Ambassador has

received grateful thanks for the USG\’s advocacy for democracy

from leading PPP figures, including the current Foreign

Minister, as well as from leaders of the opposition Democrat

Party. The fact that our restrictions on assistance to the

interim administration were required by Section 508 of the

Foreign Operations Appropriation Act allowed us to convey

clearly that our actions constituted a direct response to the

coup and were mandated by U.S. law; they were not driven by

any agenda to favor any particular political faction (as

Thais might otherwise have suspected) and did not imply

renunciation of our alliance and friendship with Thailand.

Even General Sonthi in July 2007 told the Ambassador and a

visiting U.S. Congressman that he understood and accepted our

imposition of restrictions.

 

9. (C) The greatest confluence between foreign and domestic

interests may have lain in the economic realm. The interim

authorities set economic policies that imposed costs on

Thailand\’s foreign investors and trade partners. The Thai

business community and other opinion-makers realized that

economic conditions would continue to stagnate or deteriorate

until Thailand returned to traditional political practices

 

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and restored a sense of stability and predictability,

necessary for both foreign and domestic investors.

 

WHAT WENT WRONG?

—————-

 

10. (C) Within weeks of the coup, the military leadership

fulfilled a commitment to hand governance over to a civilian

cabinet. While the public had high expectations for interim

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont when he was appointed, many

in the political class questioned Surayud\’s appointment of a

cabinet consisting predominantly of senior or retired

bureaucrats, 20 of whom were at least 60 years old. With few

exceptions (such as controversial efforts at the Health

Ministry), Surayud and his cabinet were not inclined to use

their authority to push through bold reforms. Rather, most

interim administration members seemed content just to keep

the government functioning until they could hand the reins

over to elected officials. The Ministers who did take

energetic action seemed to do so without guidance or control

from the Prime Minister. Surayud\’s administration appeared

particularly inept at managing the economy. Moreover,

neither prosecutors nor independent corruption investigators

proved able to build a compelling legal case against deposed

Prime Minister Thaksin.

 

11. (C) Despite government attempts to discredit and

marginalize him, Thaksin remained popular, especially in some

rural areas. Political figures overtly loyal to him appeared

to have access to ample funds for their activities, and they

received a fair amount of media coverage. As the December

election approached, numerous polls and analyses indicated

that the pro-Thaksin People\’s Power Party (PPP) was likely to

win a plurality. Some pro-coup figures appeared reluctant to

return to democracy in that environment, but they were unable

to roll back the legal and public commitments to elections,

which enjoyed widespread support, including from Prime

Minister Surayud and the general public.

 

ROYALISTS COULDN\’T BLOCK THAKSIN BUT AREN\’T VANQUISHED

——————————————— ———

 

12. (C) The 2007 election provided a useful indicator of the

limits of Palace influence. Plausible rumors in the period

leading up to the election claimed that Queen Sirikit sought

actively to block the return to power of pro-Thaksin forces.

We may attribute the failure of such efforts to divisions

within the royal family, or to the lack of mechanisms to

effectively convey Palace views to the public while

maintaining plausible claims that the Chakri dynasty plays an

appropriately apolitical role. Whatever the reason, it is

clear that the monarchy carries enormous influence but, even

when some of its core interests are at stake, lacks full

control over the course of events. While the King likely

could send blunt signals to achieve virtually any short-term

outcome he desires (as in 1992, when he pushed General

Suchinda from power), such intervention could transform the

role of the royal family in ways that open it up to criticism

and, over the long run, jeopardize its current lofty standing.

 

13. (C) PPP\’s victory in the election marked a setback for

the coup leaders. But the failure to block Thaksin\’s

political comeback did not represent capitulation by or

marginalization of the royalist oligarchy. With the return

to power of a pro-Thaksin government, we may once again see a

situation in which a party championing populism and drawing

its strength from the countryside moves to accumulate power

and prestige at the expense of the Palace and its

Bangkok-based blue-blood allies. A fundamental tension

between these two camps remains, and it could lead to further

bitter conflict, prompting public or private calls for

military intervention.

 

WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD

————————

 

14. (C) The factors affecting the likelihood and denouement

of future potential coups will change significantly with the

 

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eventual passing of King Bhumibol. As noted above, by

claiming the support of the King, the 2006 coup leaders

likely preempted criticism if not outright rejection from

some mainstream sectors of society. Bhumibol\’s currently

designated successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, lacks the

current King\’s extraordinary moral authority, however.

Future military leaders may be less inclined to launch a

coup, knowing they cannot count on a similarly effective

royal blessing to inhibit critics. On the other hand, a

weakened monarchy could imply that future coup leaders,

without an effective check on their power or an imposing

advocate for returning to democracy, would aim to assume the

role of the country\’s supreme authority, resulting in a more

assertive (and harder to dislodge) junta.

 

15. (C) We do not rule out the possibility of a palace

succession crisis sparking some type of unusual or

extra-constitutional action by the military, which could be

drawn into disputes between potential royal heirs. That

said, we consider it most probable that the King\’s death

would be followed — at least initially — by a period of

genuine, widespread grief and an orderly succession. (Reftel

provides post\’s understanding of succession mechanics.)

 

16. (C) For the royalist segment of the Bangkok-based

political class, however, there is no clear path to

perpetuating the monarchy\’s preeminence after the King\’s

death. The 2007 constitution appeared designed to keep

political parties weak and divided; some of the drafters

likely hoped that this would not only preclude the

reemergence of TRT in the near term but also prevent any

civilian politician from rivaling the King\’s leadership.

Nevertheless, PPP\’s success in 2007 signals that Thaksin –

with his network, funds, and popularity in rural areas –

remains the dominant force in party politics. And with Thai

contacts often acknowledging that they feel significantly

more devotion to King Bhumibol than to the institution of the

royal family, it is not unreasonable for royalists to view

Thaksin as an existential threat to the monarchy,

particularly if he is in a position to fill the vacuum that

will appear after Bhumibol\’s death.

 

COMMENT: COUP DISAPPOINTED BUT DID NOT TRAUMATIZE

——————————————— —-

 

17. (C) Even many critics of Thaksin appeared to lose their

initial enthusiasm for the interim administration. The coup

leaders and their clique relinquished power peacefully,

however, when the time they allotted themselves ran out.

They did not attempt to perpetuate their hold on power,

unlike General Suchinda more than a decade earlier. Members

of the political class retain fresh memories of Suchinda, and

these influenced post-coup developments — for example,

prompting widespread demands that the 2007 Constitution

require that the Prime Minister be an elected legislator, to

preclude repetition of the scheme that led to a bloody,

traumatizing clash in 1992.

 

18. (C) With the passage of time, the coup leaders and the

interim administration may be remembered primarily not for

their failings and discord, but rather for offering a

solution, imperfect though it was, to the 2005-06 political

crisis. The Army provided the means to force Thaksin to

\”take a break,\” as many of his critics had urged, and,

through the 2007 election, to allow a referendum on his

governance under conditions that were more balanced than the

(subsequently nullified) elections that took place in the

spring of 2006. The return to power of a pro-Thaksin party

showed that the coup leaders failed to achieve their

fundamental goal of ridding the country of Thaksin\’s

influence — or, indeed, to achieve much at all. But the

willingness of the authorities to allow a pro-Thaksin party

to return to power in democratic elections may reinforce the

notion that the Thai military is suited to play a special

role in difficult times, and that it can be trusted to return

to the barracks after calming troubled waters. In the Thai

collective mind, the 2006-07 experience neither inspired

accolades for military intervention nor established it as

 

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inevitably disastrous.

JOHN

Written by thaicables

June 24, 2011 at 1:24 pm

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