BANGKOK — As Thailand’s first coup d’etat in over a decade was set in motion 10 years ago tomorrow, the man who ordered it was playing tennis at an army base near his home.
Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said he later went home at about 8pm and listened to the news. Sure enough, tanks and troops under his command soon occupied all major government buildings. The elected government under then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra didn’t put up a fight. Sonthi, who was army chief at the time, was now in control of Thailand.
“It’s like fighting a war. In military principles, it’s about finding out and evaluating the forces of the other side,” Sonthi, now retired from the military, said in an exclusive interview Thursday at the same base he played on Sept. 19, 2006. “We already evaluated that there would be no resistance. No confrontation. Our information was clear.”
It was a coup that toppled the most popular elected government in Thailand’s recent history. Although Thailand had never been short of coups, the one in 2006 came as a major turning point in the conflict that pitted the grassroots-backed regime against urbanites and their allies in the establishment. It would later become a theme that defined the political crisis to span the following decade.
In an hour-long interview, Sonthi talked about how he views his legacy, and what he finds different between the 2006 coup and the latest one two years ago. As a ground rule, he said that he would not discuss the monarchy in any capacity.
Most of all, the general rejected the popular notion it was an “unfinished coup” which left conditions ripe for its follow-up in 2014 and said he has no regrets.
In his opinion, Thailand was on the verge of collapse. Anti-Thaksin protests, known as Yellowshirts, were taking to the streets at the same time as pro-Thaksin counter-protesters, and Sonthi said he learned that Thaksin planned to crack down on his opponents the next day on Sept. 20. He decided to step in to avert the crisis, he said.
“There would have been use of force on Sept. 20 against the anti-government crowds. There would be violence, and my job was to take care of the internal security of the nation,” Sonthi said. At the time the army had different plans for different scenarios, and he ordered the contingency plan that he said would prevent the bloodbath: a coup.
“I did what I had to do as a soldier,” he said, in summary of his actions.
The coup came as a shock to many Thais because it had been 15 years since the last in 1991, which was widely thought to be “the last coup.” And the coup makers of 2006 followed the pattern of their predecessors: Sonthi assumed role as interim government leader for only two weeks before handing power – in name, at least – to a new prime minister, Surayud Chulanont.
Afterward, Sonthi receded into the background, remaining head of the junta, known officially as the Council of National Security, or CNS. Under the interim constitution, it had no formal power over the government.
He said the main objective of the coup, preventing the potential bloodshed, was already accomplished by the time he stepped down. Other aims that would later arise, like eradicating corruption, protecting the monarchy from slanders, and national reconciliation were works of the successive governments.
“It was the duty of other governments. I have already accomplished my mission. The coup d’etat achieved its objective,” Sonthi said.
But not everyone shared his opinion. While progressives and opponents of the military regime naturally denounced the coup, conservatives and hardline anti-Thaksin activists also criticized Sonthi’s regime for not going far enough to root out Thaksin’s influence in Thai politics. The main accusation is that the coup was a sia kong, or “wasted opportunity.”
“It was a sia kong coup, because it couldn’t stop ideological divisions of both sides,” an anonymous blogger wrote in 2009. “If anyone will stages a coup again, they have to think beyond merely stopping the bleeding, but to also bring peace to the country. If they cannot do that, don’t think of another sia kong coup.”
Thaksin, who was attending a U.N. meeting in New York City when the putsch came, assumed a life in exile. Yet his allies and family members continued to wield political influence on his behalf, including his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, elected prime minister in 2011 by a political base that welcomed her as a proxy for her brother.
Sonthi rejects the allegation that he left the job undone as empty rhetoric to discredit his regime. He said he did what he could with what little time he had.
“It’s just rhetoric that is used again and again,” said Sonthi, who briefly dabbled in politics as an opposition MP in 2011. “I only had 14 days [as interim prime minister]. I already did the big job. That is all I could do. And it was an honorable job, too.”
But whereas Sonthi took a backseat in the aftermath of the 2006 coup, the army chief to follow suit eight years later, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, broke with tradition. Retaining both positions as junta chairman and prime minister, Prayuth directly ran the post-coup administration and aggressively dismantled pro-Thaksin organizations. On Monday, the 10th anniversary of Sonthi’s coup and more than two years after his own, Prayuth will be in New York City at the head of the Thai delegation for a U.N. meeting focused on migrants and refugees.
Prayuth’s suppression of expression and political speech, which makes Sonthi’s regime look relatively enlightened, probably worked, too. Last month’s charter referendum, which turned out a sweeping junta victory for the junta, was even a greater blow to Thaksin’s political dynasty than 2007, when the post-coup regime’s preferred constitution won approval by a much narrower margin.
Old and New
Sonthi acknowledged that Prayuth is sterner stuff, and although he said he would never run a government by himself, he sympathized with Prayuth for choosing to do so.
“He had to come down and do it himself because, if not him, who would?” Sonthi said. “And if he appointed someone to the job, but that person refused his orders, what would he do? If anything goes wrong or turns against him, it will be his head on the block.”
He said Prayuth’s harsh measures are justified because the situation is more severe than in 2006. Ten years ago, Sonthi said, there was no centralized opposition movement – the group that would later become the Redshirt umbrella organization wasn’t formed until late 2007 – and political divisions were not yet so apparent.
The general also justified the coup as yet another necessary measure to save Thailand.
“It was a situation that doesn’t leave any other solution,” Sonthi said. “The conflict was peaking. Parts of the city were occupied by protesters. Corruption was more severe than ever. So the army was forced to do something.”
But that goes back to the question: If such crisis returned to force the army’s hand again, doesn’t that make the 2006 coup a failure? As it has been argued, didn’t it leave a mess that had to be cleaned up by the 2014 coup makers?
Sonthi doesn’t think so. He maintained the faults laid with the governments that came after his regime, who should have behaved fairly and fixed Thailand’s problems. Instead, he said, they ended up perpetuating the conflict by looking after their own.
“When the state rulers were Pheu Thai, they sided with Pheu Thai. When the state rulers were Democrats, they sided with Democrats. So it just led to new conflict again.” Sonthi said.
So does he consider his job done well?
“Of course,” Sonthi said. “If on that day, I didn’t do it, can you imagine what would have happened? The consequences of that day made the country better.”
What about the current junta that’s embarking on yet another quixotic quest to root out all problems in Thailand?
“They’re doing it. But it’s not easy … so they have not accomplished the goals yet. But I see their effort,” he said.
Sonthi said he hopes the next government taking charge after a new election in 2017 will be impartial and transparent. Otherwise, he warned , the military will have to step in again.
“If the government doesn’t do those things, people would come out on the streets again, and it would end up like in the past,” Sonthi said.