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The moral enigma
of the September 19
popular coup in Thailand



Chaiwat Satha-Anand

Peace Information Center,
Foundation for Democracy and Development Studies
Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University


Bangkok, September 25, 2006

The September 19, 2006 (9/19) coup d’etat in Thailand is a great puzzle for many. It is difficult to understand this coup not so much in terms of 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 coup tanks. In fact, according to one recent survey, 83% of Thais nationwide are in favor of this coup. Given the positive popular reception of this coup, one wonders if there is such a thing as a “good” or “peaceful” coup?
In this article, I wish to first offer an explanation why so many, both common people and noted public intellectuals, are supporting this coup. Then the moral enigma when reasons for the coup could be accepted while the coup as a means of political change itself is rejected would be explored. Finally, a sign of hope for Thai society that took place in a quiet effort to cope with the coup will be suggested.

For those in favor

Apart from the fact that the coup was staged without bloodshed in its successful attempt to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinnawat, there are four reasons why it is favored by many in Thai society.
First, some believe that the coup was staged to prevent the continuing conflict situation from sinking deeper into violence, and possibly a civil war between two armed groups, one in support of Thaksin and those who opposed him. Conflicts in any society between people of different opinions as well as between the state and ordinary people are generally regarded as less dangerous than those between two opposing armed forces, both to the combatants and the civilians. For those who read the situation prior to September 19 as leading towards 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 at the hands of the Thaksin government by rendering all independent monitoring channels/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 have dangerously threatened peoples’ rights 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 a democracy. It is the democratically-elected government that has been by and large responsible for so much violence, those who died during the drug wars, some in Southern violence, and a number of NGO rights advocates who had been killed during the last five years.
This has been 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 be called the “elected capitalist absolutist.”

But coup d’etat is wrong

If one believes that the aim of this coup d’etat is 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 profound sense of the terms apart from the fact that it was elected by the majority, then the coup is morally acceptable.
The moral enigma lies, however, with those who believe that these reasons are probably true and yet maintain that coup d’etat is still morally wrong. Counting myself among these, 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 a coup d’etat or condoning it 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 in the moral dilemma is important to a meaningful journey on the road to 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 as an energizing ideal through free debates.

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In De officiis, Cicero wrote that “For in 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.

A Sign of Hope

Two days after the coup on 9/19, a young woman walked into my office. She said she decided not to go to class because what has 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 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 it shames me with her innocence and courage.
I looked up at her bright young face and saw hope for Thai society.


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