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Stability, Prosperity in Thailand Still Uncertain One Year After Military Coup


One year has passed since the Thai military overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on grounds it was corrupt. The interim government is making good on promises to return the country to democracy by the end of the year. But as VOA Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, the process of recovering stability and economic prosperity are just beginning.

A year ago, many Thais welcomed the sight of tanks in the streets, when the Royal Army entered Bangkok on September 19, 2006, and ousted twice-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his government. People hoped the military coup would end a bitter year of political crises and protests over whether the Thaksin government was corrupt and abused its power.

But another year on - political uncertainty persists and economic stagnation has set in. Some Thais are questioning what the coup accomplished. And many wonder why the military-installed government waited until last month to present formal corruption charges against Mr. Thaksin.

"If they can prove that the former leader was corrupt, the coup would be reasonable," said Morawat, a businessman along central Bangkok's Silom Road. "Now, we cannot say whether there was reason enough for a coup."

The billionaire telecom tycoon's time in office was increasingly marked with controversy. He was known for populist economic policies that the rural poor loved. He was known for sweeping initiatives to wipe out crime, drug running and graft. Human rights groups noted these policies stressed tough action over respect for civil rights. The most problematic issue to arise during Mr. Thaksin's tenure was resurgent Muslim violence in the south. Again he was accused - even by his own military - of heavy-handed tactics in trying to quell the violence.

The galvanizing event turned out to be a multi-billion dollar tax-free sale of a Thaksin company. While the courts ruled in Mr. Thaksin's favor, public opinion began to turn and allegations of cronyism and political manipulation surfaced along with street demonstrations.

Leading critics of the Thaksin government - mostly the urban educated elite - then accused his party of trying to weaken independent government bodies and the democratic balance of power among the political branches that were enshrined in the 1997 constitution.

While this was Thailand's 18th coup since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 - it was the first in more than 15 years - a period in which Thailand had evolved politically and economically. But this coup appears to have ushered in a year of economic turmoil - that included stock market plunges, currency losses and questionable protectionist policies.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak - a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok - says the coup has undermined Thailand's economic growth.

"The coup got rid of a corrupt and abusive leader, but the coup was mismanaged because the coup makers rejected everything that the previous leader did," he said. "So it has not solve much in the past year, apart from kicking out Thaksin. And now it poses more risk as the military becomes more institutionalized and involved in Thai politics."

Life is not better for Orathai, who sells flowers at her stand on a Bangkok street from six in the morning until nine at night. She hopes to save enough to buy a house for herself and her mother. She says she does not know much about politics, but she does know that life has gotten harder for her.

"I can say that last year, life was better. This year has been worse," she said. "Things are more expensive, and I am selling less."

Economists concur that the past 12 months have been a lost year for Thailand. Foreign investment slowed. Analysts warn the country may be losing its competitive edge to the cheaper labor markets of China and Vietnam. At the same time, they say Thailand is falling short of its goals to compete with the high-value, technology based economies of Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Over the past year, many Thais have gone bankrupt, unable to repay loans that were made on easy credit terms under the Thaksin government - one of the policies that made him popular among the middle and lower classes.

Thailand's voters do not yet know who will run in December's elections or what policies will be on offer. Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin is due to retire from the Army in the coming days and his role in Thailand's political future is still not clear.

One year after the coup, Mr. Thaksin is in exile but looms large. Thais remain deeply divided between those who called for Mr. Thaksin's overthrow and those who still support him.

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