While Muslims account for only 4.6% of Thailand’s total population, their presence in the country (a relic of a 1909 deal with the British that left three Muslim-majority Malay states in Thai hands) has been a major factor in the coup in Thailand last week that ousted democratically-elected PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman who was so widely accused of corruption that even the US did not call for his restoration. Shinawatra, whose alleged abuses of power (extrajudicial killings, buying votes, hiding the first outbreak of bird flu, and personally enriching himself at Thailand’s expense) have soured the Thai electorate in recent years, had implemented a heavy-handed approach to separatist tensions with the predominantly Muslim south that have cost 1,000 lives in the past year, including the murder of a Muslim human rights lawyer and the killing of 78 unarmed protestors (pausing momentarily to drop origami birds of peace). The coup leader, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, is the country’s highest ranking Muslim and was appointed commander-in-chief last year as an attempt by the government to increase pressure on insurgents – a move that now appears to have backfired on the billionaire leader. The general had called for negotiations with Muslim leaders and a more discriminating policy of selectively targeting extremists, a policy rejected by the government and now revived by the new military leadership. So why has the coup been relatively painless, with tourists taking pictures of smiling soldiers (that’s an order!) instead of taking to the streets (only 100 people did) to protest restrictions on press freedoms and the dissolution of democratic bodies? In addition to disatisfaction with Shinawatra among the urban elite, many Thais were unhappy with a government bogged down in scandal and unable to resolve the ongoing conflict in the south. Also, the coup gained immediate support from Thailand’s revered (though powerless) King, a man much loved in Thailand and to whom Boonyaratglin dedicated the coup. Though Shinawatra was a populist who catered to poorer Thais with subsidies and marketing campaigns, the coup has been tentatively accepted among the Muslim communities of the south who hope to see progress in negotiations. “On my way here, I was prime minister,” said Thaksin in New York while attending the UN General Assembly meeting during the coup. “On my way back, I’m jobless.” Perhaps, but Thailand’s new leaders have quite a job ahead of them – quelling unrest in the south, moving forward on a promise to tackle corruption, and keeping the tourism industry (still reeling from 2004’s tsunami) from faltering. And a few smiling soldiers couldn’t hurt.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.