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Published: Monday, 2/11/2008

Back in civilian hands

THAILAND seems to be on the track back to multiparty democratic rule after a military coup d'etat in 2006 derailed it.

At the same time, predictions are difficult because it's a country with mechanics of government that are as intricate as the script of its ancient language.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a king and a parliament, with government led by a prime minister. The king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 80, does not govern the country. Even so, as was demonstrated during the latest coup, one of 18 in the past 75 years, nothing important in Thailand changes without the king's approval.

The other major element in the delicate dance of government and power is the army. Thailand lives in a relatively dangerous neighborhood, with borders on Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as a seacoast. Its central role in the region came to the forefront during the Vietnam War when the United States staged a major part of its military activities out of Thailand.

Apart from the king, the dominant political figure in recent years was Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 until the military overthrew him in 2006. He is generally considered to have been responsible for the economic progress Thailand enjoyed at the time. But he was also considered to be corrupt and excessively ambitious politically, showing tendencies toward dictatorship. The military thus overthrew him with the king's concurrence.

Military rule is frowned on - although not excluded - in Southeast Asia. There was thus international as well as domestic pressure on Thailand to return to democratic rule. Reasonably clean elections were held in December. Mr. Thaksin's party was not permitted to participate, but political parties aligned with him won handily and have now formed a six-party coalition government headed by Samak Sundaravej, considered to be a Thaksin surrogate.

On that basis, the Thai military handed government back to the civilians. But they are still concerned about Mr. Thaksin, and he is threatening to return from exile, apparently not content just to manipulate matters from outside the country.

Stability in Thailand is important. It has been a relatively prosperous country of 65 million in the middle of a sometimes fluid region. It has a nasty Muslim minority secessionist movement fighting against the government in the south. As such, it merits continued scrutiny, both by its neighbors and by the United States.

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