The motivation behind the 2006 coup d’etat can be explained from various perspectives. On the one hand it was simply the military under the command of the then army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin that staged the coup. On the other hand, the anti-Thaksin movement which emerged from 2005 reveals, at a deeper level, how three major national institutions – nation, religion and monarchy – had conspired together to form the core opposition.
What’s important is that the leader in this campaign to exploit nation, religion and monarchy was media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, once a friend of Thaksin (The Nation, November 28, 2005: 1A). Sondhi launched an attack on Thaksin after his business suffered severe losses. His friend Viroj Nualkhair (who helped Sondhi resuscitate his business from the debts that followed the 1997 economic crisis) was not offered the chance to renew his contract as CEO of Krung Thai Bank. This also coincided with the removal of Sondhi’s Thailand Weekly television program from Channel 9 (The Nation, November 30 2005: 4A).
Sondhi’s anti-Thaksin movement, which was later joined by people from various other groups including intellectuals, aristocrats, some of the middle-class, members of the Privy Council and some parts of the military, cited issues relating to nation, religion and monarchy to oust Thaksin.
When Sondhi and his allies launched their attacks on Thaksin -whether at gatherings that took place in the auditorium of Thammasat University, Lumpini Park or at Sanam Luang – the slogan ‘save the nation’ was used to justify their political mobilisation. They were convinced that the Thaksin government was responsible for corruption in the purchase of the explosive detection system CTX 9000 and the Russian C 130 aircraft. Even more important was the sale of USD 1.8 billion worth of shares of Shin Corporation by the Shinawatra and Damapong families to the Singaporean state-owned Temasek Holdings on January 24, 2006 (Ukrist, 2007: 108-109). They branded this transaction a sale of national assets since Shin Corporation received access to Thailand’s satellite network.
From a focus on the nation, the anti-Thaksin campaign moved on to issues related to the monarchy. Sondhi and his allies demonstrated their loyalty to the king under the political slogan “we will fight for the king,” wearing yellow shirts, the colour of Buddhism as well as the colour representing Monday, the day of the king’s birth. “We will fight for the king” was unveiled with the release of Pramual Rujanaseri’s book entitled The Royal Power, which demanded a return of royal power to the king. Later on, in August 2005, during a seminar at Thammasat University that included Sondhi, Pramual and Kaewsan Atibhoti as speakers, Pramual announced that:
…there are two paths for our country to follow, one is to be a kingdom where prosperity of the country is measured not only by economic prosperity but through the improvement of the people’s quality of life according to the advice given by His Majesty the King.
The second path is to see to it that our nation turns into Thailand Company Limited where money is everything and everything is money…
The “royal power” discourse soon transformed itself from an idea in a book to a basis for the formation of various anti-Thaksin movements in society and was popularised by Sondhi in his Manager newspaper and on his ASTV.
The most significant movement to restore royal power was the petition for a royally-appointed prime minister, citing Article 7 of the 1997 constitution as a justification. The king, however, dismissed the possibility of using Article 7 on April 25, 2006.
Religion and monarchy: Sondhi and Luangta Maha Bua
Later on, the anti-Thaksin campaign employed religion as a tool to attack Thaksin. Sondhi Limthongkul observed that politics had begun to encroach upon the institution of Buddhism. The appointment of Somdet Phra Buddhacharn (Somdet Kiaw) as Acting Supreme Patriarch, with a special committee appointed to act in the ailing Supreme Patriarch Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana’s stead, was regarded as an appointment which could provoke a rift among Buddhists in Thai society due to the perceived existence of two Supreme Patriarchs. The appointment was also believed to contravene the royal prerogative of the king (Kumnoon 2006: 54).
Sondhi opined during the first travelling session of his Thailand Weekly on September 25, 2005, that;
…The country is comprised of only two institutions that are, please remember, religion and monarchy, not the 30-baht health campaign, not anything else. Whenever religion is vulnerable, the monarchy will become vulnerable, too, and vice versa. Then, we will have no country, no religion, whether Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, all of which form the anchor of spirituality of Thai society…
…The monarchy is the final buffer of the Thai society which we all can depend on whenever the leader is deficient in his virtues. However, whenever the monarchy becomes but a mere political rubber stamp and the country could be subject to a transaction because the constitution was created by politicians, who were controlled by the party, which was owned the capital… (cited in Kumnoon 2006 : 54)
Sondhi’s reference to Buddhism and mention of the perceived violation of royal power as a means to attack the Thaksin government was not his sole attack. He found ardent support and close alliance in a senior monk, namely Phra Dharma Visuthimongkol or Luangta Maha Bua. Luangta Maha Bua dispatched 600 monks from the forest temples to give Sondhi a blessing and support at his Baan Phra Athit headquarters, Bangkok, on November 21, 2005 following Sondhi’s attacks on the prime minister. Later on, Luangta Maha Bua summoned both Sondhi and Thaksin for a meeting at Baan Tad forest temple, Muang district, Udon Thani, on November 24, 2005. However, only Sondhi turned up for the meeting (Kumnoon 2006: 159). Luangta Maha Bua cited the peace of the country as the reason behind his invitation, while allowing Sondhi to stage a travelling session of his Thailand Weekly programme there for Sondhi’s own safety (Kumnoon 2006: 160).
Initially, Luangta Maha Bua had been very supportive of Thaksin, particularly during the time the former prime minister was being investigated in the first assets concealment case in 2001. Back then, Luangta Maha Bua’s crucial disciple Thongkon Wongsamut said in a newspaper interview that during the time Thaksin was faced with difficulties it was Luangta Maha Bua and a number of meditative forest monks and disciples who mustered up their resources and manpower to gather signatures in support of Thaksin. It turned out that within a period of two months they had a list of 1.8 million names (Manager, March 29, 2006: 10). The main motivation behind Luangta Maha Bua’s support of Thaksin was a belief that Thaksin could steer the country through any financial crisis after the approaching general election.
Thongkon gave an interview saying that:
…I asked Thaksin why he had been in and out of the political arena and why he returned to politics. He told me that he had everything and had had enough but then one day, Dr Chao Na Sylvanta, privy councillor and a disciple of Luangta Maha Bua approached him, and asked if he could spare a sum of 5 billion baht to establish a political party to solve the problems of the country… (cited in Manager, March 29, 2006: 10)
Upon hearing Thaksin’s answer, Thongkon volunteered to help and asked him to take on the task of restoring the status of Buddhism to its former glory. Thaksin’s reply was that there was no need to worry because he would certainly restore Buddhism, particularly the Buddhist treasures which would be utilised to generate more money. This reflects a capitalist idea that was deeply rooted in his head, which dictates that any asset that was immobile became useless, including religious treasures (ibid.).
Luangta Maha Bua, Thongkon and the disciples’ support for Thaksin would subsequently hinder Thaksin strongly opposing them after Thaksin was cleared of the assets concealment case and became prime minister. Later in 2004, the Thaksin government, through the Deputy Education Minister overseeing the Department of Religious Affairs (Chamlong Krutkhuntod), cited Article 7 of 1992’s Sangha Act (second edition) to justify the appointment of Somdet Phra Buddhacharn (Somdet Kiaw) as Acting Supreme Patriarch following the chronic illness of the current Supreme Patriarch. Sondhi and his allies, however, objected that the Supreme Patriarch was not too sick to perform his duties and that during the past two years (2004-2005), the Supreme Patriarch had been performing his religious functions as usual (Kumnoon 2006: 77-79).
The appointment of the Acting Supreme Patriarch was one issue that turned Luangta Maha Bua against Thaksin.
The use of religious disputes in political conflicts escalated following the September 2006 coup. After the coup, there was an accusation that an order of the Supreme Patriarch was counterfeited. The order had attempted to change the Acting Supreme Patriarch from Somdet Phra Buddhacharn (Somdet Kiaw) to Somdet Phra Maha Theracharn, the abbot of Wat Chanasongkram (Thairath, November 7, 2006: 19; Matichon, November 8, 2006: 16). Approximately 300 monks from several temples turned up to protest against the order, which was claimed to be fraudulent.
Also, there was an attempt to take an opportunity to propose a new Sangha law to the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (Manager, November 7, 2006). The proposed Sangha Law was a revised draft for the 1962 Sangha Act (amended in 1992). Paisan Peutmongkol gathered 32 names of fellow NLA members to propose the amendment of the Sangha Act. One major amendment was to base the qualification of candidates for the post of Acting Supreme Patriarch on seniority of ordination, that is, according to the total length of time spent in the monkhood, rather than the seniority in the monastic hierarchy (Matichon, November 8, 2006; The Nation, November 9, 2006).
The Bangkok Post analysis mentioned that Somdet Phra Buddhacharn or Somdet Kiaw of Sra Ket Temple was the most influential figure in the Council of Elders. But he is less senior than other elders. All this reveals the ongoing feud between Luangta Maha Bua, an outspoken and revered forest monk, and his arch-enemy Somdet Kiaw. Luangta Maha Bua has long campaigned for a return to the original Sangha Act, which would block Somdet Kiaw’s rise in the clergy on grounds that the present bill infringes on royal prerogative as well as violates the Vinaya (Sanitsuda, 2006 : 11).
In November 2006, there was an attempt to file a petition to then Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont, pressing him to bring the subject of changing the Acting Supreme Patriarch to cabinet (Thairath, November 7, 2006 : 19). But he didn’t comply with the request in the petition. Besides, some members of the NLA withdrew their names from the proposal for the amendment of the Sangha Act, leaving the proposal short of the compulsory 25 names required for legislative consideration (Thairath, November 9, 2006: 10; Krungthep Turakit, November 9, 2006: 19).
Manager newspaper criticised those NLA members who withdrew their name, branding them irresponsible while Paisan Peutmongkol said in an interview that he had a rural background and was a follower of Buddhadasa Bhikku and not Luangta Maha Bua, and that his action had not been prompted by any order from anyone, nor was it masterminded by Sondhi Limthongkul (Krungthep Turakit, November 9, 2006: 19).
The religion and monarchy issues fuelled the conflict between the Thaksin government and its opponents. The accusation that the appointment of the Acting Supreme Patriarch is a violation of the royal power is a strong accusation. Religious issues were also related to the movement to replace Thaksin with a royally-appointed prime minister. Such political machinations can be considered directly related to the monarchy.
Thaksin journeyed upcountry and travelled overseas to tone down the intensity of resistance and to avoid confrontation. The Thaksin government had exploited the political legitimacy derived from winning the general elections in 2001, 2005 and 2006 with an overwhelming vote and the establishment of a single-party government. In addition, Thaksin had managed to dominate the bureaucracy, provincial governors, and police officers, as well as the military.
When the attempt to oppose the government through the parliamentary system failed, the anti-government group resorted to non-parliamentary politics by calling on anti-government spirit using nation, religion and monarchy as tools to attack the Thaksin government through the media and the campaigns staged by Sondhi Limthongkul.
In terms of the conflict between the two senior monks, it remained clear that religious issues were used to damage the government which culminated in the coup of September 19, 2006. The junta, however, never again mentioned the religious issues raised during the anti-Thaksin movement. The issues relating to the monarchy, though mentioned by the coup makers in the Council of National Security’s announcement, were not pursued. However, the anti-Thaksin government was trying to take advantage of the junta-appointed NLA to propose a change to the Sangha Act in order to use the monarchy’s royal power to appoint the future Supreme Patriarch. However, the rushed attempt met with no success.