Year on, Thailand's "good coup" gets failing grade

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BANGKOK, Sep 19 (Reuters) As coups go in Thailand, the country's 18th putsch has been dreadfully disappointing.

A year after the soldiers who ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were greeted with flowers on the streets of Bangkok, many Thais are giving the so-called ''good coup'' a failing grade.

''The coup that was supposed to lead to a better democracy has been proven to be a myth,'' Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in a commentary.

''The past year in Thailand bears the chief lesson that there is no such thing as a good coup,'' he said.

Most analysts say the coup makers have botched or made scant headway in achieving their stated goals of healing political divisions, eradicating corruption and reforming a political system they accused Thaksin and his allies of manipulating.

''The coup d'etat cost the country much,'' the Bangkok Post said today. ''The democratic system took several backward steps, Thailand's image suffered and foreign investors' confidence weakened.'' It also failed to prise Thaksin from his central position in Thai politics, despite his party being disbanded for electoral fraud and 111 of its executives, including him, banished from politics for five years.

The billionaire telecoms tycoon has kept a mesmerising grip on the country.

A referendum last month that approved a military-backed constitution showed Thaksin still commanded considerable support in the countryside, where most Thais live and which helped him to two landslide election victories, especially in the north.

Thaksin, who has denied charges of corruption and abuse of power filed by graft investigators, used the coup anniversary to launch a scathing attack on the generals.

He also accused the world of turning a blind eye to ''departures from democratic norms'' since the coup.

''In reflecting on the past year, I am appalled by the suffering that has been inflicted on the Thai people by the junta's misplaced priorities,'' Thaksin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

A promised December. 23 general election could not be free and fair because martial law remained in force in nearly half the country's 76 provinces, most of them former strongholds of his banned Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, he said.

RIGHTS WORRIES Human rights groups have echoed similar concerns, and pointed to continued allegations of abuses by security forces in the Muslim deep south where a separatist insurgency has intensified in the past year.

''Thaksin's contempt for human rights and democracy was evident, but Thailand is worse off because of the coup,'' Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said.

The new constitution, dubbed the ''Anti-Thaksin'' charter by supporters who say it will boost checks and balances weakened by Thaksin, appears designed to usher in an era of weak coalition governments that typified the 1980s.

''The new constitution is actually a step backwards for Thailand,'' Adams said. It ''allows key powers to be controlled and manipulated by appointees from the military and bureaucracy at the expense of elected leaders''.

Investors hope the election will end the political turmoil and restore consumer confidence which has languished at five-year lows for most of 2007, crimping an economy expected to grow by little more than four per cent this year, the lowest since 2001.

Scared off by a series of botched post-coup economic measures, including capital controls imposed to rein in a surging baht, foreign investors are again buying Thai stocks considered cheap compared to other Asian markets.

The main stock index has risen about 20 per cent so far this year, fuelled by 88.5 billion baht in foreign net buying, the third best performer in Southest Asia.

But Thai companies which slashed their investment plans as consumer confidence plunged after the coup are more cautious.

''If the political situation does not improve after the election, more companies will suffer,'' Anuphong Assavabhokhin, chief executive of Asian Property Development, told an investment conference.

REUTERS SG PM1516

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