- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Thaksin Shinawatra announced in April that his tenure as Thailand’s prime minister would end with elections scheduled for November. Military leaders, however, used the prime minister’s visit this week to U.N. headquarters to launch Thailand’s 20th military coup — its first since 1992.

The Thaksin government was a strong U.S. ally in the war on terror. Collaboration with Thai authorities led to the arrest of the terrorist Hambali, a key link between Osama bin Laden and a terror network in Southeast Asia. Thailand has been fighting an Islamic insurgency in its southern regions, which may be bolstered by the recent political instability. How a new government will approach cooperation with the United States in the fight against global terrorism is still unclear.

Thai imports and exports have nearly doubled since 2000, due in part to U.S. companies, including prominent auto makers Ford and General Motors, which have significant investments there. A U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement has been in negotiations since 2004. Investor confidence, which had recovered substantially from the 1997 crisis, will surely be rattled.

A divisive figure as admired as he is detested, Mr. Thaksin has for years been subject to charges of corruption and failure to deal with the Islamic insurgency. In response to public pressure, and after conferring with the king, the prime minister dissolved parliament in February and scheduled elections for April. That election was boycotted, however, and although Mr. Thaksin won re-election, the results failed to provide him with the mandate he needed. A Thai court later invalidated the April election altogether, and a new election had been planned for November.

The real center of political power in Thailand is the king, who Mr. Thaksin rankled on more than one occasion and at whose behest Mr. Thaksin was to step down. And the monarch, truly revered by most Thais, has given his full approval of the coup, and placed his political weight behind the temporary leadership of one of the generals involved.

Despite Mr. Thaksin’s faults, real and perceived, there can be no rationalization of a military overthrow of a democratically elected civilian government, and the generals responsible for the coup deserve an even sharper rebuke than the ones they have received from the United States and the rest of the international community. Thailand’s political fate is up in the air, with the undoing of a decade and a half of progress. A quick restoration of democracy in Thailand is in U.S. interests, and Washington should continue to push for an end to the military junta.

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