Outside editorial: The generals need to get out of the way in Thailand

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The generals who overthrew a democratically elected government and took power in Thailand in September 2006 have performed two useful functions. They have provided yet one more persuasive example that military rule is not the panacea its promoters often fantasize it will be. And they allowed what appears to have been a reasonably free election to take place on Sunday. Now - though the election was a triumph for the same forces that the generals objected to 15 months ago - they should perform one more service to their country and get out of the way of its politics.

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Thailand's army launched its coup to get rid of Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular and problematic leader. Thaksin, a billionaire, constricted the independent press; bullied and bought opponents; cozied up to the dictators in next-door Burma; and led a "war on drugs" that relied on extrajudicial assassination. But as leader of the Thais Love Thais party, he had won two elections with overwhelming support from the rural poor. He was resented by Bangkok's elite not so much for his human rights violations as for the populism that cut them out of power. The support of many of them for the coup was as mistaken as the coup itself.

How mistaken has been evident in the failure of the generals and their interim civilian government and, now, in the results of the election. Thailand's economy sputtered under military rule, and the generals never managed to prove legal accusations of large-scale corruption against Thaksin, now living in comfortable exile. They nonetheless barred him and his party from politics.

No matter: A successor party openly campaigning for his return, the People's Power Party, won by far the largest number of seats in the election, though not quite enough to govern without coalition partners. Thailand seems headed for a period of uncertainty, at best, as parties negotiate to form a government; the societal rifts exploited by Mr. Thaksin have only been widened by the coup and its aftermath. The generals, though they have pledged otherwise, may be tempted to intervene again to block the return of their nemesis. They should ponder their record, and refrain.

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