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The violence in Bangkok was in reality an attempted coup d’état by corrupt former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Wong Maye-E/AP)
The violence in Bangkok was in reality an attempted coup d’état by corrupt former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Wong Maye-E/AP)

David Van Praagh

Thailand's real road to freedom starts here Add to ...

Now that the Thai army has cleared Bangkok's streets of demonstrators who claimed to be protesting for democracy, Thailand, which means Land of the Free, can begin working, again, to live up its name.

The next key event - not nearly as dramatic as the armed confrontation that paralyzed Bangkok for more than two months - will be a democratic election as early as November or as late as the end of 2011. In preparation for that election, Thais - and non-Thais who care about their country - need to understand some facts that have emerged in recent days.

First, the Thai army acted not above the law or on its own but on the orders of the elected coalition government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Prachatipat or Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political party. If Thai generals had carried out a coup, as they have many times in Thailand's past, the result may well have been a civil war worse than the one that came perilously close to happening in 1976, three years after democracy had gained a foothold.

Second, what the world has seen in the weeks of confrontation is nothing less than an attempted coup d'état by Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, who was convicted of corruption and had about $1.5-billion of his assets seized by the government. Mr. Thaksin, now in exile, aimed to provoke a bloody massacre of so-called Red Shirt demonstrators by the army that would have led to civil conflict - the only way for him to return to power and end the monarchy that holds Thailand together. The coup failed when the army showed extraordinary restraint until it was no longer possible to allow the ruination of Bangkok's business and shopping district. Even then, casualties were comparatively low.

Third - and perhaps most revealing - Mr. Thaksin's hard-core Red Shirts turned out to be not a force for democracy but for what can only be called a Thai strain of fascism. This was first evident in the 1920s, when King Vajiravudh created the ultranationalist Wild Tiger Corps. It became dominant when Marshal Pibul Songgram, an admirer of Hitler, Mussolini and especially Japanese imperialists, ruled Thailand before and during the Second World War. It re-emerged in the 1970s, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej ordered ruling generals into exile, and military officers and well-to-do civilians reacted viciously in the name of nationalism. Most of today's Red Shirts are farmers from the underdeveloped northeast and their sympathizers, and they have gone home to tend their fields. Others call themselves Black Shirts - modern-day Wild Tigers beholden to Mr. Thaksin.

Fourth, the all-important monarchy so far has not been an actor but an observer - although doubtlessly a close observer - of Thailand's latest crisis. In all likelihood, this was because Mr. Thaksin had succeeded in making royalty an issue, and the revered King, 82, did not want the monarchy, which must be seen to be above politics, to be dragged down into the political morass. Now, if his health permits, the King may be more free to resume his role as Thailand's political mediator of last resort, especially if the next election producers a stalemate. Or he could anoint the universally respected Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn - not the widely distrusted Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn - to succeed him in this role, possibly as a precedent for a royal succession. Princess Sirindhorn helped to take Thailand out of its crisis in 1992 when she declared on television: "We all want the same thing, which is democracy."

Along with making democracy work, Thailand's most pressing needs are the restoration of popular confidence in the government, and easing the alienation of many poor Thais from the increasingly prosperous mainstream. The monarchy exists to help do these things. People at all levels must also pitch in. Thailand is an innately conservative Buddhist nation. Thais' great sadness must soon give way to their usual smiles.

David Van Praagh, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia, is the author of Thailand's Struggle for Democracy: The Life and Times of M.R. Seni Pramoj. He is a professor of journalism at Carleton University.

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