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  • News and Notes

Coup in Thailand

One of the most promising cases of recent democratic development in the world—Thailand—suffered a severe setback on February 23 when the military seized power in a bloodless coup. Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan (the first Thai prime minister to be an elected member of parliament since 1976) and several of his key advisors were arrested and martial law was declared. The 1978 Constitution was abolished and the new military government, led by armed forces supreme commander General Sunthorn Komsompong, declared its intention to restructure the democratic system.

The coup leaders cited extensive government corruption as a prime motive for seizing power. Independent observers agree that corruption had grown alarmingly in scale and brazenness during Chatichai's two and a half years in office. However, observers note that corruption had long been widespread in government and politics and reaches deeply into the military as well.

A more significant motive appears to be what the military denounced as the Chatichai government's attempts to "destroy" the military and to "distort" a recently opened investigation into a 1982 assassination plot against national leaders. Although these issues involved somewhat byzantine factional disputes within the military, at their core was the effort of the Chatichai government to establish greater civilian control over the military, which has dominated Thai political life for half a century.

The military regime's initial statements and actions raised disturbing implications. In addition to those directly detained, several key democratic officials and intellectuals—including Chai-Anan Samudavanija, president of the Social Science Association of Thailand and a member of the Journal of Democracy's International Advisory Committee—were threatened and prevented from travelling outside [End Page 130] the country. An initial commitment to return the country to civilian rule in six months was later extended to up to fourteen months, and signs indicated that the military might try to impose severe constraints upon the effective power of civilian elected officials under a new constitution.

A more hopeful prognosis was signalled by the military's appointment on March 3 of Anand Punyarachun as the new prime minister. A leading businessman and former Thai ambassador to the United States, Anand has been described by one prominent democrat in Thailand as "a liberal with a very independent mind and unquestionable integrity." He is believed to have set the release of political detainees, the lifting of travel bans, and full independence to conduct government affairs as conditions for accepting the prime ministership. However, the military has announced that it, and not the new government, will supervise the planned corruption trials of former prime minister Chatichai and 22 of his cabinet ministers.

The Journal plans to carry an extensive analysis of the coup and of the political future of Thailand in an upcoming issue.

Chinese Protesters Sentenced

While world attention focused on events in the Persian Gull four leaders of the 1989 prodemocracy rally in Tiananmen Square were sentenced on February 12 after quick trials before the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People's Court. Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, veterans of democracy movements in the 1970s, were both sentenced to 13 years in prison; Liu Gang, a former graduate student at Beijing University, was given 6 years; and Chen Xiaoping, a law lecturer who had surrendered to the police, was set free.

Soviet Democratic Congress Convenes

On 26-27 January 1991, the Democratic Congress, a coalition of independent Soviet democratic groups, convened in Kharkov to discuss a wide variety of issues touching on future democratic development in the Soviet Union. Over 40 political parties, organizations, and movements from across the USSR, including the Ukrainian Popular Movement (Rukh), the Democratic Russia Movement, Lithuania's Sajudis, and the Russian Christian Democratic Movement, took part.

The participants issued a Founding Declaration and several policy statements. The Declaration calls for "the consolidation of democratic forces for the peaceful liquidation of the totalitarian regime, the dismantling of imperial structures, [and] the creation of sovereign democratic states."

Two of the most important policy pronouncements concerned the March 17 referendum on preservation of the USSR and [End Page 131] Gorbachev's "anticonstitutional" crackdowns. The first "appeals to the people and parliaments of the sovereign republics" to vote...


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