Forget the apologies, let the PM rebuild democracy
They claim they knew how undesirable it was to deploy tanks to chase out an elected government. But an autocratic and corrupt regime had driven the country into a dead-end, and violence of catastrophic proportions was threatening to throw the nation into unprecedented anarchy.
The soldiers even insist that if there had been another, peaceful, less controversial way out, they would have preferred it and stayed in the barracks. But however "reluctant" the military officers may claim they were in taking the plunge, there is no denying that any failure to embark on real democratic reform will put them squarely in the dock.
First, the coup-leaders put this rather surprising, even amusing, apology at the end of their first statement, issued at around 10pm on September 19: "We are sorry for any inconvenience that this action [the coup] might have caused to the public."
Then, two weeks later, the coup leader, Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, led the newly named Council of National Security, to seek Royal "amnesty" in an unprecedented ceremony in front of the King Rama V statue. This was followed by a public vow that the coup-makers had no intention of holding on to political power to run the government.
And when General Surayud Chulanont was named interim premier, he too suggested that given a choice, he wouldn't have accepted the post. It was out of his sense of duty, he declared, that he had reluctantly taken up the job so that the embattled nation could get back on its feet.
If the coup leaders seriously hope to be "forgiven" for tearing up the Constitution (and in the process putting up roadblocks on the country's democratic path), and if the interim premier wants to be able to claim to have fulfilled his duties in an unenviable role that he hadn't sought, then they must take on the following tough, inescapable assignments over the next few months:
l How does the Surayud-led interim government turn national reconciliation into a real way of life that goes side by side with a genuine effort to create an informed citizenry able to access free-flowing information and engage in critical debate on issues of real significance in a robust democratic society?
Genuine reconciliation within a society that has been plunged into an abyss of unprecedented divisiveness by an autocratic ruler can only be achieved through a widespread understanding of what's at stake by all segments of the population. We will reach understanding by allowing free access to information and all shades of opinion. The only way to do this is through a guarantee that the press will be unfettered and the implementation of legislation that enshrines freedom of information.
l How do we make sure the September 19 coup goes down in history as the real "last coup"? Cynics will say this is wishful thinking, pure and simple. They contend that this latest putsch, the first in 15 years, has effectively made a mockery of all previous analyses claiming that Thailand had seen the last of direct military intervention in politics.
But those who support the military takeover, labelling it a "necessary evil" under the pretext that "Thaksin left the country no other alternative", argue that an entrenched and tested checks-and-balances system to stem graft and punish corrupt bureaucrats and politicians would deprive the armed forces of any excuse to deploy tanks and rifles to overthrow a popularly elected government.
l How will premier Surayud's declared "self-sufficiency" philosophy in practice replace "populism", which was undoubtedly the source of the grass-roots political popularity of the Thaksin regime?
The challenge here is equally, if not more, formidable. Large segments of the rural poor and urban middle-class got hooked on Thaksin's hand-outs. A prevailing dependence on "a strong leader who carries a magic wand" has taken root in well-targeted constituencies. Crude materialism has subverted the traditional Thai sense of self-respect and the Buddhist "middle way".
Premier Surayud will have to mobilise the support of the entire country. He will have to secure public participation at all social and political levels to put the nation back on the right path of building on the basis of strong fundamentals, rather than superficial and highly wasteful "image-building" marketing gimmickry. Surayud's decision to place more priority on "the people's happiness" than on GDP growth rates was a bold declaration of commendable intention. Nothing short of massive national rehabilitation will pull those misguided citizens who were hoodwinked by Thaksin's "grand promises" of a fake Utopia back from the cliff of national disaster.
None of these challenges will be easy or even "doable" in the immediate future. But the damage done by what has been variously labelled "a soft coup", "Silk Revolution" or "a coup to end all coups" will not be neutralised unless the military leaders and the interim government are seen to be at least attempting to achieve some of these basic goals, no matter how ambitious they may sound.
A pundit aptly summed it up the day after the coup: the good news is that Thaksin's "populist" and corrupt regime is gone, and so the first half of national reform can be considered complete. The bad news is that the second half of that mission is unquestionably much more complicated and challenging than the first.