First coup in 15 years shakes up the country's political, media landscape

Last updated on 2/19/2007

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in a bloodless military coup on Sept. 19, 2006, while he was out of the country attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The coup occurred less than a month before the scheduled Oct. 15 nationwide general elections that have now been cancelled.

The military takeover, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, was Thailand's 19th coup since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and its first in 15 years. The country has come under military rule several times between 1947 and 1991. Like many previous coups in the country's history, power changed hands without any real violence taking place.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The executive branch consists of both the king and the prime minister. Although the king possesses no real political powers, he is incredibly influential because he is revered by many Thais and considered a symbol of national identity. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne for 60 years. In a special televised ceremony, leaders of Thailand's military coup were given formal royal approval by the king. The TV footage confirmed rumors that suggested that the king supported the coup.

Thailand's constitution, redrafted in 1997, was repealed and the National Assembly, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, was dissolved following the military takeover. Coup leaders said they were finalizing a temporary draft charter to replace the scrapped 1997 constitution that will be used until a new constitution is created. Sonthi said he wanted a new constitution to be written and democracy restored in one year's time, but there are concerns that he may not give up power so quickly and so easily. He has also stated that there would be no elections held for at least one year.

Gen. Sonthi took power as head of an interim Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) run by the military. He said the Thai army seized power to unite the country after months of political turmoil following the disputed April 2006 elections. On Oct. 1 the CDR, now called the Council for National Security (CNS), named former Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont as new prime minister. Prime Minister Surayud will govern until the elections scheduled for Oct. 2007 and lifted martial law in the rural north on Nov. 2006. Many coup leaders of the past have been cautious about surrendering power and slow to rebuild democratic institutions in the country.

Since the takoever, coup leaders have removed some of former Prime Minister Thaksin's supporters from their government posts and appointed a new National Counter-Corruption Commission to investigate allegations of corruption during the former premier's rule. Yet Gen. Sonthi said in an interview with the Nation that it could be difficult to implicate the former prime minister in major corruption cases.

The EU and the United States have condemned the coup.

While coup leaders removed Thaksin supporters from government positions, other government officials have attempted to dissociate themselves from the deposed prime minister. The board of the Mass Communications Organisation of Thailand (MCOT) and MCOT Director-General Mingkwan Saengsuwan announced their resignations on Sept. 27 and took responsibility for allowing the airing of former Prime Minister Thaksin declaration of a state of emergency before the coup.

Citizens have proven to be restless in the aftermath of the takeover, as roughly 1,000 protestors assembled on Dec. 2006, demanding the reinstatement of the 1997 constitution and a new election. In this peaceful rally, participants urged for the protection of democracy, and the departure of Prime Minister Surayud's interim government and the CNS.

New Media Restrictions

In the wake of the coup, the CDR authorized tighter restrictions on the several forms of media.

Live television news from local and international channels, including the BBC and CNN, were blacked out during the night of coup in Bangkok. There was no live news on television except for announcements from Gen. Sonthi on the army-run Channel 15. Troops surrounded the Government House with tanks and took control of all local broadcast media. An announcement by former Prime Minister Thaksin in a television broadcast from New York, in which he declared a state of emergency and fired Gen. Sonthi, was cut short. Troops arrested the station manager who attempted to broadcast the address, and Gen. Sonthi revoked the state of emergency soon afterward.

The military council ordered the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (ICT) to censor anything that it considered controversial or challenged the authority of the military government. In addition, coup leaders barred websites from disseminating news and information that could be a threat to national security. ICT asked webmasters to close political webboards with provocative content for 12 days. Websites and webboards that fail to follow the order will face permanent closure. The website of the Bangkok Post, one of the most popular English dailies in Thailand, experienced massive slow downs throughout Tuesday as readers tried to access information from the Internet. Other news-related websites also encountered very heavy traffic. Midnight University was shut down on Oct. 1 after its operators protested the coup leaders' interim charter. The group will petition to the Administrative Court to reopen their site; they claim the ICT did not properly inform them of the ban.

Within a week of the coup, the CDR shut down community radio stations in Thailand's rural north, a stronhold of support for former Prime Minister Thaksin. Fifty radio stations in the northeastern province of Roi Et in Issan, the country's poorest region, were also forced to shut down. As of Oct. 13, the closures are still in effect as a provision of martial law.

In addition to strict radio regulation, other electronic media have been banned from conducting live interviews, phone-in comments and scrolling messages on television from mobile phones. Coup authorities, however, were not clear how the ban would affect newspapers.

Although the media is free to criticize government policies, investigate claims of corruption and report on human rights abuses, they show a great deal respect for the monarchy, the army and the judiciary. In Thailand, it is a crime to insult or criticize the king and those who do can face charges of lèse majesté.

The Thai government and the Royal Thai Army control almost of the country's national TV and radio networks. In contrast, most print media publications are privately-run. The radio market, especially in Bangkok, is extremely competitive. There are around 60 radio stations in the capital.

In the midst of government regulation on media, the country's next permanent constitution is in its early stages of approval. After submitting an interim charter to His Majesty the King, CDR head Gen. Sonthi has requested the mass media to nominate one representative to assist the 35-member constitution-drafting committee. He says the CDR will guarantee freedoms for the people and for the media. In Dec. 2006 The People's Assembly for Political Reform (PAPR) demanded a new constitution containing key principles from the 1997 constitution and began drafting its own draft which will be completed by Apr. 2007. Shortly after, the three interim government-appointed media representatives resigned from drafting committee, accusing the committee of failing to involve public participation.

New Prime Minister is Privy Councillor and Retired Army Chief

Before the coup took place, the two main candidates for premier in the Oct. 15 elections were incumbent Prime Minister Thaksin and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Coup leaders announced a new list of four candidates to replace Thaksin, who was on vacation in London after the coup:

  • Supachai Panitchpakdi, former World Trade Organization director-general
    The most internationally recognizeded of the four candidates, Supachai is currently the Secretary General of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and was formerly the director-general of the World Trade Organization.
  • Chatumongol Sonakul, former Bank of Thailand governor
    Sonakul led the Bank of Thailand from 1998 to 2001 and was sacked by former Prime Minster Thaksin. He is also fairly well recognized in the international community and respected for fiscal expertise.
  • Pridiyathorn Devakula, current Bank of Thailand governor
    Educated in the United States, Pridiyathorn was appointed to his current position by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin. He was the president of Export-Import Bank of Thailand before he was chosen to replace Sonakul as head of the Bank of Thailand.
  • Ackaratorn Chularat, president of the Supreme Administrative Court
    Because of his legal knowledge, Ackaratorn is another strong candidate for prime minister. Military leaders are looking for the next premier to play a significant role in helping to draft a new constitution.

The CNS chose retired army chief and senior adviser of the Privy Council, Surayud Chulanont, as the new prime minister. Surayud is considered an appropriate choice because of his 40-year military career and experience fighting against corruption and rights violations. In the late 1990s, he clashed with former Prime Minister Thaksin who wanted to increase business ties with Burmese military leaders. Surayud was sworn in Oct. 1 by Gen. Sonthi.

Recent Election History

In Jan. 2001, telecommunications mogul and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party won the general elections. He was re-elected as prime minister again in 2005 and held the title until the Sept. 19, 2006 coup.

The events that led to the coup can be traced back to allegations of corruption within Thaksin's government two years ago. Yet it was not until January of this year when Thaksin sold his family's stake in Shin Corp. to Singapore's Temasek company that many Thais became frustrated by their prime minster. Much of the criticism of the transaction was over the fact that the sale was exempt from capital gains tax and that a Thai company was being sold to a Singaporean company.

There were massive protests that called for Thaksin to resign, and he also faced criticism for not dealing the Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand and his uneasy relationship with the press.

Tensions within the country intensified when he decided to dissolve parliament in Feb. 2006 and announced an election in April, in which Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party ended up winning 57 percent of the vote. Despite the landslide victory, protests and violence followed as millions of Thais refused to accept the outcome of the election.

King Bhumibol ordered the courts to resolve the election, and the Constitutional Court ultimately ruled the April elections invalid. Oct. 15 was the date set for another election. However, there were indications that the October election was going to be postponed until November even before the coup occurred.

Coup leader Gen. Sonthi has said that the next election in Thailand may not take place for another year.

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