Can there really be a peaceful coup?

The coup in Thailand (19 September, 2006) remains a great puzzle for many. The issue is not so much why it has happened, but its popularity. There were reports of people giving flowers and cold drinks to soldiers on the streets. In Chiangmai, kids would not stop bothering their teachers until they were taken to see the tanks. In fact, according to one recent survey, 83% of Thais nationwide are in favour of this coup.

Given its positive popular reception, one wonders if there is such a thing as a “good” or “peaceful” coup? Here I want first to offer an explanation as to why so many, both ordinary people and noted public intellectuals, are supporting this coup. When the reasons behind it are accepted, while the coup as a means of political change itself is rejected, we are certainly faced with something of a moral enigma. As we will see, there are also signs of hope in the way people have coped with the unfolding events.

Apart from the fact that the coup was staged without bloodshed in ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinnawat, there are four reasons why it is favoured by many in Thai society. First, some believe that it was staged to prevent the continuing conflict from sinking deeper into violence, and possibly a civil war between two armed groups, one in support of Thaksin and those opposed to him. For those who read the situation prior to 19 September as heading toward widespread violence, the coup was therefore supported on the ground that it was a preventive measure.

Second, there are some who believe that the coup did not kill the constitution because it was already dead long ago in the hands of the Thaksin government – a regime which had rendered all independent monitoring channels and agencies ineffective through its control of capital, people and the media.

Third, during its years in office, the Thaksin government, while trumpeting the notion of electoral rights, had chosen to so profoundly connect Thailand with the global economy that its regulations dangerously threatened peoples’ access to natural resources and other communal rights.

Fourth, from a theoretical point of view, it is not adequate to think of this coup as a conflict between a dictatorship and democracy. It is the democratically-elected government that has been frequently responsible for violence – including those who died during the drug wars, some in the conflict in the south, and a number of NGO advocates killed during the last five years.

So this was a conflict between the military, who finally decided to forcefully take over to defend what they regarded as sacred, and the Thaksin government which, according to Kasian Tejapira, could legitimately be termed an “elected capitalist absolutist” regime.

If one believes that the aim of this coup d’etat was to prevent the country from falling into a pit of violence, that the constitution was long dead, and that the Thaksin government was not democratic in the genuine sense of this term, then the coup is morally acceptable. The moral enigma lies, however, with those who believe that these reasons are probably correcting and yet maintain that what was done was still morally wrong.

Counting myself among these critics, I would argue that a coup d’etat, despite the fact that it was staged nonviolently and probably for a good cause, is wrong because of what it has done to a society accepting it as right. Accepting or condoning a coup means accepting Mao’s dictum that ‘power comes from the barrel of the gun’ and that violence or the threat of violence is the final arbiter of political conflict, not the power of words or rational persuasion.

Engaging this moral dilemma is important for a meaningful journey towards democracy, which needs to be grounded on some basic ideals which include the questioning of the monopoly of ‘truth’, the use of force to impose it on others, and the gradual renewal of society through free debate as an energizing ideal.

In De officiis, Cicero wrote: “[I]n exceptional circumstances that which is commonly held to be wrong is found on reflection not to be wrong.” When it comes to the problem of violence, especially in Thai society, there seems to be a tendency to turn a state of exception, as suggested by Cicero, into a norm which would render the notions of right and wrong irrelevant.

Though understandable, it is sad to see how popular this coup has become, because accepting violent solutions to political problems could also be seen as a sign of despair. The moral cost of hopelessness in oneself and the ability of one’s society to solve political problems peacefully needs to be seriously taken into account as the price a society has to pay for its popular coup.

There are signs of hope, however. Two days after the coup, a young woman walked into my office. She said she decided not to go to class because what had happened bothered her a great deal as a student of political science at Thammasat. So she spent her time thinking in the library. In a soft voice, she politely told me that in response to the Council for Democratic Reform Under Constitutional Monarchy’s (CDRM) public invitation for written inputs from university students, she wrote a letter, using her real name, asking them, no - begging them, to respect the rights and liberty of those who might disagree with them and to treat those who might express their right to dissent peacefully without resorting to violence.

She mentioned the brutal violence which had taken place in this land exactly three decades ago, violence that has created a rift which cut deep into the soul of the nation and has been so hard to heal. She used a piece of lined paper from her schoolbook, wrote it with a pencil in a language so simple that her innocence and courage shames me. I looked up at her bright young face and saw hope for Thai society.