Leading article: Damaging proof of instability

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The Independent Online

The deposed Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, arrived in London last night, the latest in a long line of enforced exiles to find at least a temporary haven in Britain. How long he feels it necessary to stay will be a gauge of the state of democracy in his homeland.

Removal in a military coup is not something that is open to judicial appeal. And the ousting of Mr Thaksin was a classic of its kind. In New York for the annual UN General Assembly, he received the news on the eve of his scheduled speech. His attempt to declare a state of emergency by phone from the other side of the world was cut off by the military censors. Tanks were on the streets of Bangkok; troops had entered Government House, and martial law was in force nationwide. Mr Thaksin's fate was sealed yesterday when King Bhumibol confirmed the head of the army, Sondhi Boonyarataklin, leader of an interim government.

The rights and wrongs of Mr Thaksin's removal are more complex than they might appear. The political situation in Thailand had been confused and tense for many months before the military took the action it did. Mr Thaksin and his family had been mired in a corruption scandal since the start of the year, and there were almost daily protests on the streets of the capital. Elections in April were boycotted by the opposition parties, then annulled by Thailand's constitution court. The legislature was in abeyance. The Muslim minority in the south was restive and sporadic, bomb attacks were occurring closer and closer to the capital. Many people believed it was only a matter of time before something gave.

In the end, it was the military that called time on Mr Thaksin in a coup that was accomplished without bloodshed. The clinical nature of the action, however, should not obscure the undesirability of coups in general and this coup in particular.

In the 15 years since the previous coup in Thailand, hopes had grown that the days of permanent political instability, punctuated by coups, were over. We had lulled ourselves into believing that, although fragile, Thailand's democracy would endure. The economy had emerged from the Asian currency crisis of the late Nineties and was growing. It was recovering well from the tsunami of Christmas 2004, and starting to play a fuller part in the region.

With an economy so dependent on tourism and trade, Thailand needs a positive reputation abroad if it is to thrive. Instability is potentially ruinous. The military authorities must produce a firm timetable for the restoration of democracy - and be prepared to surrender power with as much discipline and efficiency as they seized it.