Thai generals seek image makeover

Thai generals seek image makeover

By Kate McGeown

BBC News, Bangkok

tanks on the Royal plaza

Thailand’s new rulers want to replace traditional coup images…

Thailand’s new leaders have an image problem.

They want to be seen as their nation’s protectors,
launching last week’s coup because it was the only way forward after
months of political deadlock.

So far most Thai citizens appear to back them,
especially in the capital Bangkok, where former Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra was unpopular.

But the international community is unconvinced, finding
it hard to believe that a military takeover was better than a
democratic system, however flawed that system might have been.

So the new rulers have gone on a charm offensive, hoping to explain why they believe the coup was necessary.

Lieutenant-General Winai Phattiyakul, one of the six
generals now ruling the country, said that if the military had not
intervened, something much worse could have happened.

children pose with a soldier in central Bangkok

… with the appearance of a people-friendly coup

“There would have been clashes between pro-Thaksin and
anti-Thaksin demonstrators,” he told the BBC. “If we let that happen we
don’t know how many lives we would lose.”

The ruling council is also keen to downplay the
significance of last Tuesday’s takeover, referring to it as more of a
“political change” than a coup.

It is so anxious to appear friendly rather than
threatening that the Thai media is full of images of tourists posing
next to tanks, and soldiers receiving flowers from children.

Honeymoon period

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science
professor at Chulalongkorn University, the new leaders might be
enjoying a period of national goodwill in the immediate aftermath of
the coup, but this will not last long.

“The generals have to capitalise on this goodwill as
quickly as possible,” he said. “There’s a sense they have to maintain
their momentum.”

The key test – especially in the eyes of the
international community – is whether they stick to their pledge to
draft an interim constitution by the end of this week, and put in place
a new prime minister by early next week.

“A timetable has been set, so now there are milestones
in place, and we will have to see if they stick to them,” said Gothom
Arya, the director of Mahidol University’s research centre on

The military’s image will suffer a lot if they put a puppet government in place
Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak

But even if they do meet the timetable, many analysts are concerned about the extent of influence the military will retain.

“The military’s image will suffer a lot if they put a puppet government in place,” said Prof Thitinan.

The new ruling council is keen to dispel this fear, and
has recently appointed dozens of prominent citizens as its advisers,
Gothom Arya among them.

But such was the rush to bring these people on board
that many were not officially told about their appointments before the
news was made public.

“I learnt about it in a radio announcement,” said Gothom Arya.

Civil liberty v public order

Another issue which the ruling generals have to address
urgently, in order to retain the public’s support, is the charge of
corruption levelled against the old regime.

This allegation, centring on ousted Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra and his close associates, was one of the military’s
justifications for launching the coup.

“They need to take Thaksin to task on the corruption
allegations very quickly,” said Prof Thitinan, “but it’s difficult
because they also need to have a proper legal process.”

Perhaps the most immediate problem the generals face, though, is how to keep order without alienating people.

Protester outside Siam Paragon shopping mall on Friday

No action was taken against the first anti-coup protesters

Despite anger from human rights groups, they have
imposed restrictions on public gatherings and political meetings. They
have also clamped down on press freedom, with soldiers continuing to
patrol several television stations.

“The restrictions on people’s liberty and some reports in the media are just for a short space of time,” Lt Gen Winai insisted.

But already the seeds of dissent are beginning to grow.

Last Friday a small group of demonstrators became the
first to publicly protest against the coup, and while the government
turned a blind eye, such protests are likely to increase the longer the
restrictions remain in place.

According to Prof Thitinan, the nightmare for the
military council is if the people who protested against Mr Thaksin
earlier this year joined forces with pro-Thaksin supporters, in order
to rally against the coup.

“The military is just not well-equipped to deal with such peaceful protests,” he said.

Thailand’s military rulers have many challenges ahead.
It is one thing to successfully wrest power from a flawed regime, but
it is quite another to prove worthy of taking it.

“They’ve said they have noble intentions,” said Gothom
Arya, “but it’s far too early to take them at their word. You can only
judge them by what they do.”

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