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Interview

Ex-army chief who ousted Thaksin backs use of coups in Thailand

Former coup leader Sonthi says the key to a lasting democracy is a large middle class

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in 2014: A previous coup leader says Prayuth has failed to effectively address corruption.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a former Thai army chief commander who led the overthrow of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, sees coups as a necessary tool in his country's "immature" democracy.

Thai democracy differs "from the U.S., U.K., France, Japan or other countries in Asia," Sonthi told Nikkei in an exclusive interview. "Many coups [have taken] place in Thailand until now because the military [has] had to step in to correct immature so-called Thai-style politics."

He added that the coming administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha should focus on helping more Thais move up into the middle class, believing democracy only functions with a large middle-class population.

Thailand went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in a bloodless coup known as the Siamese revolution of 1932. But Sonthi says the democracy that has accompanied this style of monarchism has been failing.

"Thailand has many poor people," he said. "And rich people often come in and take advantage of the poor in a democratic system. Politicians, who spend a lot of money on election maneuvering, try to take back money while they are in power."

Sonthi added that in Thailand this leads to cronyism and nepotism. "Leaders always choose their friends or people in their network to administrate the country," he said

One result of this is that administrative posts are not filled with the most qualified people. Another result, Sonthi said, is that "it causes inefficiency and even corruption."

Sonthi became the Royal Thai Army chief commander in 2005. He was the first Thai Muslim to take that position. A year later, he led a coup to oust Thaksin, becoming a deputy prime minister of the interim government formed after the overthrow.

Former Thai army chief commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin speaks to Nikkei in Bangkok. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

At the time, Thailand was a tempest of emotions and a country divided into pro- and anti-Thaksin camps. "People requested [us] to step in," Sonthi said. "Coups cannot be done if people do not support [them]."

Sonthi said the military has four duties in Thailand: defending the country, keeping civil peace, providing aid in times of natural calamities and protecting the monarchy. "Nowadays," he said, "there are more people who are progressively left-wing and do not want the monarchy. Meanwhile, many people still want democracy with the king as the head of state."

The former army chief went on: "The military thinks Thai democracy needs the king as the head of state. Therefore, the military also stages coups in order to protect the monarchy."

King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun heads the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

In the past five years, Thailand has been under military rule with Prayuth acting as the head of government. In March, general elections were held in such a way as to ensure Prayuth and the military would have an outsize say in the resulting government.

Prayuth's cabinet members were sworn in by the king on July 16, and the junta rule officially came to an end. Nine members of the incoming cabinet hail from the junta.

Sonthi insists that the new government should be recognized as a civilian government even though the new constitution bent the electoral process to allow Prayuth to remain as prime minister. "People accepted this constitution," he said. "It passed a national referendum in 2017."

Sonthi did not seat himself as prime minister after his coup. "Prayuth learned a lesson from me," Sonthi said. "Because I did not take the position, I could not do too much. Prayuth saw that problems in Thailand would not be solved if he were to not become prime minister."

Prayuth's junta, Sonthi said, failed to effectively address two problems, corruption and a class divide. He believes these societal ills can be solved by helping the country's poor gain their financial footing.

"Left-wingers have been campaigning among the less-educated and poor that past governments paid less attention to them," he said. "The next government must tackle problems, firstly by looking after the poor.

"We have to understand that Thailand is not a developed country. In order to have a better democracy, there must be more of a middle class."

The tools to lift people out of the lower classes, he said, are education and economic growth. Eventually, he implied, as incomes rise fewer people will be susceptible to bribes and other forms of corruption.

"If things go well, many things will change and we are on the way to better future," he said. But what if future governments fail to tackle corruption or bridge the divide? "If people feel they are suffering and they want to change," he said, "another coup can happen."

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