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Thai Democracy

By David Warren

There have been at least a dozen military coups, since Thailand first embarked on the "path to democracy" before the Second World War. After each comes the ritual of a gleaming new constitution. The good news is the coups get farther and farther apart. The bad is that the most recent coup -- bloodless and fairly happy -- happened this week.

The coups are justified because each elected government proves corrupt and incompetent. (So why don't we have coups in Canada?) The Thai military goes in with a new broom, or at least a new set of officers from the last time, and usually enjoys, as now, great initial popularity. This wears thin fairly quickly, setting the stage for a new round of public celebration when democracy is restored. That sours, in turn, when the party that wins the election errs on the side of demagoguery, featherbeds to an unconscionable degree, and creates the conditions for another coup.

This pattern is not always strictly followed. When a mistake is made, in the established etiquette, a lot of people get killed. In one case, two generations ago, the army and navy found themselves on opposite sides of both the political spectrum, and Wireless Road. The resulting shoot-out made it perhaps Thailand's least happy coup.

Her king has held Thailand together. The same Bhumipol Adulyadet (which means, "strength of the land incomparable power") has been on the throne since 1946, ascending as a teenager after the mysterious death of his elder brother. Perhaps no monarch has served his nation so well in recent history. Nor has been so revered, for so long.

That he is a jazz saxophonist, who has played with such greats as Stan Getz and Benny Carter, in such venues as the Ambara Throne Hall, helps to explain. He is a composer, too, in the best Dixieland and swing traditions, chiefly to fox-trot and waltz rhythms. (Search out his masterpiece, "Falling Rain".) King Bhumipol, ninth of the illustrious Chakri dynasty, has a truly incomparable ability to play with a developing melodic line, then improvise solo.

He found himself playing solo again this week, when, after the government of Thaksin Shinawatra was removed (the man himself caught offshore in London), the nation looked to her king for approval or disapproval. The soldiers had naturally decorated themselves and their gun barrels with ribbons of royal yellow, to show their loyalty. The king said, "I approve," and all is well.

On another occasion, in 1973, when the military began shooting students, and the students piling bodies on the Democracy Monument, the king publicly disapproved, and the coup leaders immediately fled into exile. Later, when the student movement became too radical, the king watched silently as another military coup performed a much-needed purge of Communists in the country's universities, civil service, and media -- without which Thailand would indeed have become the "next domino" after Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

The situation is now complicated because in the far south of Thailand, adjoining Malaysia, where the Muslims are concentrated in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, another wave of revolution has come. Southern Thailand is now one of the many bloody fronts in the international "terror war", where thousands have been killed, both by Islamofascist jihadis, and in police operations. The Western media wrongly describe this as a "separatist movement", whenas the revolutionists are demanding the same imposition of the Shariah as they do in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Israel, France, and England.

There are two problems that no one is discussing. To paraphrase the title of a venerable pamphlet by Daniel Defoe, one of them is, "A question that no body thinks of, viz., What if the king should die?" It is not publicly discussed, because it is unthinkable. Thailand after King Bhumipol is as unpredictable as it is uncharted. And he is now in his eightieth year.

But the other question is sublimated more deeply. The outgoing government was elected by "conservative" rural Thailand over the visible sneering of "liberal" Bangkok. The ex-prime minister was using brutal and insensitive methods to discourage the spread of "Islamism" in the south. Bangkok disapproved that sort of thing. The urbane people of that once-fair city, like the urbane people over here, have no alternative in mind, nor any willingness to confront the question. But neither will it go away.

Democracy is a beautiful flower in any garden. But in Thailand as elsewhere it does not survive, unless the beneficiaries have the guts to do the necessarily unpleasant weeding.

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