Can Thailand’s New Premier Bring Back Democracy?

Former army chief General Surayud Chulanont has been named Thailand’s caretaker Prime Minister by the ruling junta

Retired
army chief Surayud Chulanont may have a spotless reputation, but his
military background will only fuel questions about the ruling junta’s
commitment to restore democracy

By

HANNAH BEECH/BANGKOK

military junta overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a
bloodless coup on Sept. 19, it promised to install an interim premier —
who is to govern until elections are held, probably in a year’s time —
within two weeks. On Sunday, they fulfilled their pledge with three
days to spare. But even if the putsch leaders did meet their
self-appointed deadline, their choice for caretaker, retired army chief
Surayud Chulanont, may not quell international worries about the
junta’s commitment to restoring democracy to Thailand.

A former monk and advisor to the Thai King, Surayud, 63, has
earned praise at home for his battle against corruption in the
military; his spotless image stands in sharp contrast to the
allegations of graft tainting Thaksin’s administration. But the
general’s army background—no matter how squeaky-clean—has played less
well overseas, where foreign leaders have called for a full resumption
of a civilian-led democracy. “Somebody with close ties to the military
is going to have to at least overcome the perception that they are
maintaining a close relationship with the military and may be not
acting in defense of Thai democracy,” warned U.S. State Department
spokesman Sean McCormack on Friday. A day earlier, the U.S. responded
to the coup by canceling $24 million in military aid to Thailand.

There’s no question that the new P.M. is close to the coup’s
architect, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. For years, Sonthi served as a
loyal deputy to Surayud in the army. Now, in some ways, their roles
will be reversed. Thailand’s ruling junta, despite vowing to hand over
authority to the interim P.M. and only intervene on matters of national
security, retains the ability to fire Surayud. “That’s too much power,”
says Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a legal expert at Thammasat University in
Bangkok. One thing is certain: Surayud will have to work overtime to
prove his independence from his former military mates.

So far, the junta hasn’t shown itself immune to political meddling.
More than a week after the coup, CNN and BBC continue to endure
sporadic blackouts in Thailand, while hundreds of radio stations in the
country’s north, a stronghold of Thaksin support, have been taken off
the airwaves. A ban on political activity also remains in place. But at
a briefing late last week, the putsch leaders pleaded with the foreign
media to reserve judgment on the coup’s fallout, suggesting they would
advise Surayud’s administration to lift restrictions on civil
liberties. “The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater,” admitted
senior foreign-affairs official Krit Garnjana-Goonchorn. “But the baby
will be retrieved.” Thailand’s young democracy depends on it. With
reporting by With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok

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