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Military Coups, Corruption and Democracy

July 06, 2018

At times the U.S.-appropriate penchant for democracy can lead to inappropriate support for freely elected governments which may then be overturned by a military coup to remove a massively corrupt government. Usually, a military coup prompts western condemnation but that is not necessarily the correct response. However, Thailand is a place that warrants a more considered and informed view. The author has been involved in this wonderful country for fifty years and has a personal, unbiased view of the Thai political process. First of all, how many military coups result in young ladies bringing flowers to the coup soldiers. Corrupt politicians could then sing "You don't bring me flowers anymore."

Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, there have been 25 general elections and 19 coups d'etat. Therefore, it is marginally a democracy though the fact that it is a constitutional monarchy in a largely Buddhist country adds a level of stability enjoyed in very few countries. Moreover, there have been twenty constitutions enacted since 1932 in an attempt for the military to correct the deficiencies that generated the coup. However, as we well know, there is no perfect constitution though we believe the U.S. is in a class by itself in that regard. Over the past fifty years, the author's experience is that the coups have been initiated following rampant corruption on the part of democratically elected governments, some of which are returned to power once a new constitution is enacted.

A case in point is the coup in 1991 which was prompted by an attempt to overthrow a very corrupt government and mend a breach in the military. At that point in time, a close Thai friend and I were trying to secure an offshore oil concession in the Gulf of Thailand. His father was a retired diplomat which gave us close relationships with people who could provide local content to our effort. In Thailand, one is obliged to assign 1% of the Thai company to 10 Thai individuals at no cost to be identified on the company share register. Our efforts to secure the license were stymied by the demand for a $1 million bribe from the Cabinet Minister in control of the licensing process. Not having that kind of money and finding the strong-arm tactics quite objectionable, our prospects were not good. However, one evening my Thai associate called and broke the news of the 1991 military coup. When asked whether it was good or bad, he said it was super as one of our shareholders was instrumental in implementing the coup.

Our star shareholder, General San Jipathima, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Army, is shown below. If you think he looks tough, that is an understatement. He had a photograph in his office pictured with a number of Vietnam-era U.S. Army officers who, though much taller, did not look as fierce as General San. Few Thai Army personnel had the opportunity to become battle-hardened in Vietnam where General San led an elite group of Thai rangers. From then on, we carried a list of our shareholders should anyone extend a hand for a palm to be greased. Interestingly, the coup had been plotted in our favorite restaurant, China House in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It was principally frequented by foreign guests of the hotel and out of the probing eyes of Thai customers.

In reality, it was no longer necessary to be concerned about corruption, as the Army Chief, General Sujinda Kraprayoon, immediately installed former businessman, Anan Panyarachun, as the new Prime Minister of Thailand. He, in turn, filled the government ranks with professional technocrats and businessmen. It may have been the best government in modern Thai history. The King of Thailand immediately supported the coup results. Therein lies the secret of a successful coup -- removal of a corrupt government by a strong, united military, a competent appointed administration and concurrence of the King.

Two subsequent coups were focused on the removal of the corrupt governments of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and that of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, eight years later. Both brother and sister, shown below, appealed to the rural farmers of northeastern Thailand. Yingluck's administration featured a government rice price support scheme to inflate the price of Thai rice with great appeal to the rice farmers though the rice was too expensive in export markets and put the government on the road to ruin. On the other hand, Yingluck was the most attractive Prime Minister of most any country around.

Yingluck's government was overthrown some four years ago by General Prayut Chan-o-cha shown below in his civilian attire.

A new Thai constitution has been enacted and democratic elections have been planned for February 2019. However, there has been discontent among younger members of the population who have been agitating for an acceleration in the election timetable and necessitated an occasional police presence to maintain the peace.

Accordingly, one can always judge the stage of the political cycle by having a look at the color of the uniforms on the street-soldiers in camo for governments leaving and police in blue for those staying a bit longer until the camo guys return in the future.

Individually crafted in Luang Prabang, each hand stamped leather bowl features the traditional work of the Hmong people of Laos.

Hmong X Print
(4" square x 2.5" high)
(4" square x 2.5" high)

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