Democracy is dead, but Bangkok's 24-hour party people still live it up

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The Independent Online

The bars of Khaosan, Bangkok's backpacker district, were as packed as ever last night. But, just around the corner, no one was paying much attention to the Democracy Monument, a grandiose sculpture on the ceremonial King's Highway - the floodlights still shone, but the lights are going out for democracy in Thailand.

In Khaosan, the 24-hour party continues. Girls wearing just enough to be dressed leaned over the balcony of the Up2u Tattoo and Massage Parlour. The sound of Bob Marley vied with the echo of trance music from down the street. British tourists burnt red by the Thai sun wandered happily down the street. A Thai woman erupting out of a tight leopardskin minidress swayed into their path. The neon signs were so bright it was almost day. A stand was selling "Legalise cannabis" T-shirts, and it wouldn't have been difficult to get the real thing.

The non-stop party that is Thailand, as far as the tourists are concerned, goes on. But away from the bright lights of Khaosan, something sinister is happening. The country that was the one oasis of stable democracy in south-east Asia, Washington's main ally in the region, has been transformed into a military dictatorship overnight. And nobody seems to care.

Not in Thailand, where it was business as usual yesterday. The US administration, which often says its mission is to advance democracy around the world, issued a restrained statement yesterday, saying merely that it was "disappointed" by the coup. Britain has gone along with the Western consensus, and shrugged its shoulders.

There have been no street demonstrations. No one has condemned the coup, or demanded the elected parliament be restored. On the surface it may be ordinary life but, behind the scenes, the junta led by General Sondhi Boonyaratglin that has seized control of the country was dismantling basic civil liberties.

It announced yesterday that it was banning all "political activities". The generals said they were taking over all legislative power in the "absence" of parliament - although parliament is still there. The generals just won't let it meet. They have muzzled Thai television and radio by banning the broadcast of all material deemed harmful to the junta's interest. Television stations have been told they cannot show any pictures of the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, or broadcast any political reactions sent in by viewers by text message, or even scroll "harmful" information across the bottom of the screen.

Several Thai websites have shut down temporarily to avoid any repercussions. In effect, it is now illegal to report the truth.

More sinister still, three senior ministers in Mr Thaksin's government have been detained by the generals. General Sondhi's answer when he was asked about the detention of the former deputy prime minister, Chidchai Wannasathit, was chilling. "We didn't arrest him. We just invited him to be with us," the general smiled. "He's well taken care of in Bangkok." Military officers loyal to Mr Thaksin are reportedly in hiding. After this, it was no surprise that Mr Thaksin decided yesterday to remain in the safety of London.

The junta has announced that it doesn't want to be called a junta, but prefers to be known as the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy. General Sondhi, who says he has the approval of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has also unilaterally dissolved Thailand's Constitutional Court, and announced that he intends to rewrite the constitution. He has promised to appoint a civilian prime minister to carry all this out within two weeks, and to hold fresh elections in a year's time - once he has put through his constitutional changes.

All this is happening in a country that was, until Tuesday, a democracy surrounded by the Communist states of Vietnam and Laos, the military-ruled pariah state of Burma, and Cambodia, still struggling to overcome the demons of its past.

The reaction from civil society has been muted. The Bangkok Post even lent its support to the junta in an editorial yesterday. In part, civil society has had its hands tied by the fact that it has been agitating for Mr Thaksin to be removed from power for months. Huge street protests have taken place against Mr Thaksin over allegations of massive corruption which culminated in a telecommunications sale believed to have given him a $1.9bn (£1bn) tax-free profit.

But some observers are warning that, in their delight to be finally rid of Mr Thaksin, Thailand's chattering classes may have let in a far more dangerous military government.

Already the economy is feeling the effects of the coup. Fifty per cent of bookings in the vital tourism sector have been cancelled since the news broke on Tuesday night. A leading Thai businessman, Vikrom Kromdit, telephoned a live television show yesterday to say he had lost a deal worth £280m to a company in neighbouring Malaysia because the foreign investors were too afraid to fly into Thailand to meet him.

The educated elite may have loathed Mr Thaksin, but he was undeniably popular among other sections of society. He won three elections in a row. In the villages outside Bangkok, the people freely admit that his Thai Rak Thai party gave bribes to village leaders to deliver votes. But Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says that even in a completely fair election, Mr Thaksin would still sweep the board. "If there's an election supervised by the UN, Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai would win, and that's a problem for Thailand," he said.

Yet there has been no sign of any public support from him in the wake of the coup. Many Thais who said they backed Mr Thaksin said they supported the coup as the only way out of the stalemate that had developed between him and protesters. Many Thais openly welcome the coup. Others say they do not like it, but remember 1976, when the army used paramilitaries to put down student protests, and hundreds of students were tortured and killed.

Some voices are being raised against what is happening. "What General Sondhi is doing is wrong," said one young woman who gave her name only as Praew. "We have no freedom. Please tell people this is what the young people in Bangkok are saying."