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Turmoil in Thailand

September 20, 2006

THERE HAD BEEN 17 MILITARY COUPS in Thailand since its absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Number 18 occurred Tuesday, when soldiers circled the offices of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with tanks, seized TV stations and declared martial law. The military claimed to be acting on behalf of the popular monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin was in New York at the time to attend a session of the United Nations, and his future as Thai leader is now seriously in doubt. The coup could also jeopardize the recent stability and economic prosperity across Southeast Asia, traditionally among the most volatile regions in the world. Thailand has been an anchor to that stability, but now the restive foes of Thaksin are taking a huge step backward. It would be in the best interest of the country if its monarch took a page from the Spanish playbook and came out against the coup -- as King Juan Carlos I did in 1981 -- if he is free to do so.

Thaksin, a billionaire media mogul, is very popular in the rural north but widely despised in Bangkok. The first democratically-elected Thai prime minister to serve a full four-year term, he was first elected in 2001 and easily reelected in 2005. But urban voters, dissatisfied with Thaksin's control of the media, manipulation of democratic institutions, mishandling of a Muslim insurgency and other issues, held frequent protests against his regime.

Thaksin responded by holding snap elections in April, and won once again. But the election was boycotted by the minority party, leaving 38 parliamentary seats unfilled, and Thaksin wisely decided to step down. Then, after the courts declared the April election invalid, Thaksin returned to work as "caretaker" prime minister in a country without a parliament, while new elections were scheduled for this fall.

Thaksin bears some blame for his government's downfall. Had he made it clear that he wouldn't seek the premiership after the coming elections, opposition and turmoil in Bangkok would have died down. Had he not tried to interfere with military decisions, he wouldn't have created the fury among army leaders that may have prompted them to take action.

The coup could produce deep uncertainty at best and violent uprisings at worst, and it may threaten economies throughout the region. That's a heavy price to pay for one man's refusal to cede power and a refusal by his people to accept a concept taken for granted in more mature democracies: Sometimes in free elections, your side loses.

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