Anatomy of a coup

DON’T cancel those hotel reservations, mail back those Thai Airlines plane tickets or trash those vacation-paradise travel brochures just yet, folks!

By Tom Plate

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Published: Sun 24 Sep 2006, 9:49 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

Thailand is not burning, it’s not in tumult, it’s still a safe place to visit (even today, safer than many places on earth in fact), and your foreign tourist dollar is still very much desired. The only thing that’s changed is that the Kingdom of Thailand has just endured another coup and the coupster is none other than King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself.

How can that be? Accordingly to the written Thai Constitution, the King is in fact the head of state. Given that incontrovertible fact, how can the actions of the Thai military be described as a coup? (This, at any rate, is how the Western news media has characterised recent events in Bangkok.)

Coups knock off the head of the state, after all, and they tend to be scary. They send chills up the spines of tourists, rattle the cages of international investors, and inspire Western media editorial writers to bemoan the failure of democracy in Thailand in particular and in Asia in general.

The funny thing about this most recent military ‘coup’ is that no one was hurt, the financial markets shrugged it off like it was nothing and the daily business of this largely-Buddhist country of 64 million more or less proceeded apace.

The lack of reaction could have been due to this simple fact: the nations’ military leaders did was not actually stage a coup. What they did was stage a kind of political restoration of the royal monarchy.

Prime Minister Thaksin, you see, had developed the silly delusion that, having won three consecutive elections (more or less, depending on how you count them), he had in effect become the king of Siam. But this was not correct. In the kingdom of Siam, he was no more the king than you or I am. In the Kingdom of Thailand there is only one King, he is Bhumibol Adulyadej, and he is generally revered by the people as the impartial, above all politics, semi-divine, all-wise leader sort of the Imam of Thailand (and, not to mention, the unofficial commander in chief of the armed forces!)

It’s important for us to understand this. Not only because it can affect our vacation plans, but also because it can have a huge impact on foreign policy planning as well.

For the countries and peoples of the Asia-Pacific, we Americans are now beginning to understand that democracy is not a one-size-fits-all kind of idea. Democracy in the Philippines, for example, is more of a presidential system; in Singapore it is more of a velvet-glove one-party system; in Indonesia it is really more of a whole new deal; in Japan it is a very orderly system (welcome Shinzo Abe, so smoothly succeeding Junichiro Koizumi); in Australia it is sort of a British parliamentary system; in South Korea and Taiwan, it is nowadays more of a very shaky system, at least judging from the crippled status of their respective presidents.

So when I got this timely email from an old friend looking out at the non-coup from his hotel room at the Hyatt Hotel in Bangkok, I wanted to share it with you:

"Hi Tom: Bangkok is peaceful and orderly, regardless of the incessant CNN photos of a few tanks in strategic locations that you must be seeing. The coup leaders have had an audience with the King; today has been declared a national holiday; traffic is light, etc. During our dinner last night with our Thai Planning Committee, no one was alarmed or angered by the announcement of the coup. The sky train is running on-time and the Royal Thai Golf Club (as seen from my hotel room) seems to have the usual number of players."

My friend was especially happy to report this because this Los Angeles based professor and his team are putting the finishing touches on their Asia Pacific Business Outlook conference. It’s scheduled to be held in Thailand’s capital at the beginning of November — a great event (, run every year by the University of Southern California.

But how can this be? In the aftermath of a coup, where is all the turmoil and uncertainty? How can we plan something today for November?

Folks, there was no coup in Thailand. What happened was this: The King just put his royal foot down. Though ‘democratically elected,’ Thaksin turned out to be a demagogue, possible crook and closet authoritarian. If I had been the king of Thailand, I might have wanted my loyal military men to have done the same thing: to kick the bum out.

So always remember, in Thailand there is but one King. And he is the king in more than just name.

Prof. Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran US journalist

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