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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2006

Upheaval in Thailand

Americans can only deplore the sharp turn away from democracy in Thailand after last week's military coup.

While Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York to deliver an address to the United Nations General Assembly, the Thai army carried out a coup, seizing control of the government, suspending the constitution, scheduling elections for more than a year from now, and banning all political party meetings and similar activities.

The new head of government, presented to the Thai nation in a row of five uniformed officers against a backdrop of a photo of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 78, and Queen Sinkit, is Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin. It is worth noting that General Sondhi is a Muslim in a nation of 64 million with a majority of Buddhists and an active Muslim insurgency in the south.

The world is told that the Thai people in general did not mind having their democratic institutions overturned by the military. The fact that the king apparently supports the coup is cited as evidence that the people will accept it.

The overthrown prime minister, Mr. Thaksin, was apparently considered something of an autocrat, although he had won three straight elections, the most recent one in April.

The Thais are largely a peaceful people and have suffered about 20 coups since constitutional rule was introduced in 1932. Since tourism is critical to Thailand's flourishing economy, an argument can be made that what most Thais want is peace and quiet and that they will not resist the coup or the military.

All of that said, for a country that is as modern economically as Thailand has become, with entrenched habits of democracy including regular elections, the staging of a military coup seems very retrograde in terms of modern governance. The idea that it will be accepted because it has been sanctioned by a 78-year-old king is even harder for outsiders to accept.

We would have to guess, unfortunately, that more trouble is ahead in Thailand and that the sooner the generals get around to holding democratic elections, the better.

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