News and Notes

Issue Date Spring 1991
Volume 2
Issue 2
Page Numbers 130-34
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Coup in Thailand

One of the most promising cases of recent democratic development in the world—Thailand—suffered a severe setback on February 23 when the military seized power in a bloodless coup. Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan (the first Thai prime minister to be an elected member of parliament since 1976) and several of his key advisors were arrested and martial law was declared. The 1978 Constitution was abolished and the new military government, led by armed forces supreme commander General Sunthorn Komsompong, declared its intention to restructure the democratic system.

The coup leaders cited extensive government corruption as a prime motive for seizing power. Independent observers agree that corruption had grown alarmingly in scale and brazenness during Chatichai’s two and a half years in office. However, observers note that corruption had long been widespread in government and politics and reaches deeply into the military as well.

A more significant motive appears to be what the military denounced as the Chatichai government’s attempts to “destroy” the military and to “distort” a recently opened investigation into a 1982 assassination plot against national leaders. Although these issues involved somewhat byzantine factional disputes within the military, at their core was the effort of the Chatichai government to establish greater civilian control over the military, which has dominated Thai political life for half a century.

The military regime’s initial statements and actions raised disturbing implications. In addition to those directly detained, several key democratic officials and intellectuals—including Chai-Anan Samudavanija, president of the Social Science Association of Thailand and a member of the Journal of Democracy’s International Advisory Committee—were threatened and prevented from travelling outside [End Page 130] the country. An initial commitment to return the country to civilian rule in six months was later extended to up to fourteen months, and signs indicated that the military might try to impose severe constraints upon the effective power of civilian elected officials under a new constitution.

A more hopeful prognosis was signalled by the military’s appointment on March 3 of Anand Punyarachun as the new prime minister. A leading businessman and former Thai ambassador to the United States, Anand has been described by one prominent democrat in Thailand as “a liberal with a very independent mind and unquestionable integrity.” He is believed to have set the release of political detainees, the lifting of travel bans, and full independence to conduct government affairs as conditions for accepting the prime ministership. However, the military has announced that it, and not the new government, will supervise the planned corruption trials of former prime minister Chatichai and 22 of his cabinet ministers.

The Journal plans to carry an extensive analysis of the coup and of the political future of Thailand in an upcoming issue.

Chinese Protesters Sentenced

While world attention focused on events in the Persian Gull four leaders of the 1989 prodemocracy rally in Tiananmen Square were sentenced on February 12 after quick trials before the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, veterans of democracy movements in the 1970s, were both sentenced to 13 years in prison; Liu Gang, a former graduate student at Beijing University, was given 6 years; and Chen Xiaoping, a law lecturer who had surrendered to the police, was set free.

Soviet Democratic Congress Convenes

On 26-27 January 1991, the Democratic Congress, a coalition of independent Soviet democratic groups, convened in Kharkov to discuss a wide variety of issues touching on future democratic development in the Soviet Union. Over 40 political parties, organizations, and movements from across the USSR, including the Ukrainian Popular Movement (Rukh), the Democratic Russia Movement, Lithuania’s Sajudis, and the Russian Christian Democratic Movement, took part.

The participants issued a Founding Declaration and several policy statements. The Declaration calls for “the consolidation of democratic forces for the peaceful liquidation of the totalitarian regime, the dismantling of imperial structures, [and] the creation of sovereign democratic states.”

Two of the most important policy pronouncements concerned the March 17 referendum on preservation of the USSR and [End Page 131] Gorbachev’s “anticonstitutional” crackdowns. The first “appeals to the people and parliaments of the sovereign republics” to vote “no” on the referendum, and requests that republic governments replace the referendum question with: “Do you consider it necessary to transform the USSR into a concord of sovereign states, each guaranteeing human rights for all?”

The second policy statement asks the people and parliaments not to ratify Gorbachev’s unconstitutional laws, to demand the resignation of Gorbachev and much of his cabinet, “to exert civil disobedience against Gorbachev’s anticonstitutional acts,” and to transfer the power of the central government to “the Soviet Federation [Council] and the parliaments of the sovereign republics.”

Freedom in the World

Freedom House’s annual survey of freedom in the world, which rates each country on civil liberties and political rights, showed that 36 countries became more free in 1990 while 18 declined in their overall level of freedom. Five countries moved into the “free” category during 1990—Chile, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Namibia—while one country previously classified as “free”—the Philippines—declined to “partly free” status. According to the survey, 65 countries in the world are “free” (or essentially democratic), more than ever before. Freedom House has been rating the relative freedom of the nations of the world since 1955. This year’s results are contained in Vol. 22, No. 1 of Freedom Review (formerly Freedom at Issue) and will also be published in book form as Freedom in the World, 1990-1991.

Democratic Transition and Structural Adjustment in Nigeria Examined

Nigeria’s dual transition to constitutional democracy and a more market-oriented economy was the subject of an international conference held in Lagos January 9-12 at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. The discussions (funded primarily by the Ford Foundation) brought together more than 50 of Nigeria’s leading academics and policy specialists, including several advisors to the current military government, with 14 scholars from the U.S. and Britain. The conference was organized and chaired by Oyeleye Oyediran. a professor at the University of Lagos and a member of the Journal‘s International Advisory Committee, who is editing the conference papers along with Larry Diamond, Anthony Kirk-Greene, and Thomas Biersteker. These discussions were a follow-up to a conference held at the Hoover Institution in August 1990.

Both conferences saw considerable debate over the prospects for the emerging Third [End Page 132] Republic. Some saw reason for hope in the evolution of Nigerian federalism, the broad nature of the two new political parties, the greater past success of civilians in managing religious conflict, the economic reforms of the regime, and perhaps especially the widespread loss of faith in the military as a political Corrective for the country’s problems. However, great concern was expressed over the politicization and corruption of the military and the general corruption and lack of accountability throughout both the political system and civil society. Some participants were also highly critical of the military’s undemocratic manipulation of the political transition and its authoritarian imposition of structural adjustment policies in the country. Even some proponents of those policies conceded that their long-run political viability had been damaged by the political repression of opposition to them.

Despite the many points of controversy, the participants saw some grounds for hope in the amicable tone of the debate. They also strongly agreed on the need for a “civilian-to-civilian” transition after the departure of the military. While some construed this to invite a wholesale rewriting of the constitution, the main implication was the need for civilian politicians to revise and reform the democratic process gradually, without another military intervention. They emphasized the need to allow civilian political institutions time to develop in order to gain experience and popular support. Another military coup, they agreed, could only stunt Nigeria’s political development.

Newsletters Focus on Democratic Progress

Two recently inaugurated newsletters promise to contribute significantly to the current periodical literature on democracy in developing countries. The first, the ILD Newsletter, is published in English by the Instituto Libertad y Democracia of Peru. This newsletter chronicles the ILD’s progress in effecting legal reforms in Peru, including its programs to grant land titles to Peruvian peasants and its new anti-corruption initiative. (Hemando de Soto and Deborah Orsini explain the work of the ILD in detail in our Field Report on page 105). For more information contact the ILD at 4110 Fessenden Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20016 or at P.O. Box 18-1420, Lima 18, Peru.

Africa Dēmos is published bimonthly by the African Governance Program of the Carter Center of Emory University. As proclaimed on its masthead, “Africa Dēmos seeks to identify the goals, hurdles, and accomplishments of democratization in Africa. It is for the African people to devise their new political systems and identify the steps to achieving them. We monitor the changes in all their variety and complexity.” The January 1991 issue features a [End Page 133] report on the overall status of democracy in Africa and special updates on democracy’s progress in Gabon, Zaire, Mozambique, Algeria, and Ghana. For more information contact Africa Dēmos editor Richard Joseph at the Carter Center, One Copenhill, Atlanta, GA 30307; Fax (404) 420-5196.

Journal of Democracy Published in Spanish

The Summer 1990 issue of the Journal of Democracy has been published in Spanish translation by Libro Libre, a Costa Rican publishing house directed by Xavier Zavala Cuadra. Copies are being distributed to selected institutions and individuals in Latin America in an effort to assess the level of reader interest. If reactions are favorable, it may be possible to begin publishing a regular Spanish edition of the Journal. A limited number of individual copies are available upon request from the Journal‘s editorial offices in Washington or from Libro Libre, Apartado 1154-1250, Escazú, Costa Rica. We welcome our readers’ opinions on the usefulness of a regular Spanish edition.

Charles Guy Gillespie (1958-1991)

Charles Gillespie, assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, died on 1 February 1991 at the age of 32 from complications related to AIDS. Originally from London, he earned his doctorate from Yale in 1987 for his analysis of redemocratization in Uruguay. Well known among democrats and intellectuals in Uruguay, he coedited the three-volume study Uruguay y la Democracia in 1984-85. In subsequent years he applied the insights derived from his study of Uruguay to democratic transitions elsewhere in Latin American. In his brief life as a political scientist, he wrote a number of important articles on such subjects as political parties, civil-military relations, and transitions, breakdowns, and consolidation of democratic regimes. His book Negotiating Democracy will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.

In The Independent of London on February 6, his sister Elgy wrote: “The country he knew best and loved most was Uruguay, though he was also known in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, and attended [Paraguay’s] landmark elections in the capacity of observer. His published articles on the experiences of Uruguay’s torture victims and their successful reconciliation process have been used as a resource by writers and scholars in the field, and have furnished material for comparison with other Latin American countries. His commitment to Latin America and the redemocratization of its countries was not merely academic, and he will be profoundly missed in those countries in lots of small ways.” [End Page 134]


Copyright © 1991 National Endowment for Democracy