Can a coup be justified?
published : 9 Jul 2013 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
Last week's military intervention in Egypt, supposedly to restore stability and political calm, has started badly. Supporters of the overthrown government of elected president Mohamed Morsi took to the streets. Within a day of declaring calm, the army killed at least 26 people. A campaign of nationwide arrests has begun.
Even if the army does restore order, the new military involvement has inflamed political divisions. Moderates are becoming hardliners, militants are urging civil war.
Few nations have watched the Egyptian developments closer than Thailand. Since 1932, the nation has had no fewer than 17 military coups. Some historians count more, because the army has been so deeply involved in sudden changes of government.
Whatever the actual number, the overriding fact is that military force hovers over Thai politics and a coup always is possible within the next 24 hours.
The sign of Egyptians rushing out on the streets last week to greet and cheer the troops evoked instant flashbacks throughout Thailand.
Similar scenes took place on the evening of Sept 19, 2006, and throughout the next day when then-army commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin overthrew the Thaksin Shinawatra government.
There are few similarities between Egypt and Thailand, but both feature the initial cheers for military intervention.
One wishes Egypt well, but the truth is that the Thais who rooted on the coup forces of 2006 were as wrong as the military clique they lionised. The overthrow of the "Thaksin regime" was the easy part.
Within months, Gen Sonthi and accomplices proved they had no idea how to run and administer a country. While the government foundered at home and in foreign affairs, the junta hardened public opinion nationwide. Five years after the coup, and after dozens of Thais were killed in political violence, voters rejected the military and voted Thaksin allies back into power.
Last week, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appointed herself as defence minister. She is the fourth civilian premier and the first woman to hold the post.
Debate quickly began over whether the appointment made a coup more likely, or less. The sad part is that politicians, commentators and the public all realise the spectre of a military coup remains.
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was quick off the mark to link the Egyptian army's actions to Thailand. He came up with an impressive list of justifications for a military coup in this country _ government abuse of power, for example, or challenges to the judiciary.
Indeed, the current government has been accused of all this, but then so too had the previous one headed by Mr Abhisit.
A coup is always possible, and those who favour military force in politics will always find justification. A segment of the population will show support. They include those critics opposed to the government, and others who believe in the magic of simple solutions to complicated problems.
But it does not wash. A military coup never is legitimate. It inevitably sinks the country economically, causes chaos to governance, and _ in the case of another coup in Thailand _ will bring both opprobrium and major economic and political sanctions from around the world.
Constitutions are untidy documents, and democracy is messy. However, it remains, as Winston Churchill famously said, "the worst system except for all the others that have been tried". While many can attempt to justify a coup, no one can make it legitimate.