Leader of Thai Junta Promises Vote in ’07

washingtonpost.com

General Defends Coup, Says Army Will Cede Power

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, February 1, 2007; Page A08

BANGKOK, Jan. 31 — The leader of Thailand’s ruling military junta
on Wednesday vowed to hold democratic elections before the end of the
year, saying the army would immediately hand over control to a civilian
government following the inauguration of a new prime minister.

In
his first interview with a Western newspaper since leading a coup in
September, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin sought to ease mounting concerns
that the army may have long-term designs on power.

“The elections will happen this year,” he said, dressed in a navy
blue business suit decorated with a royal broach honoring Thailand’s
revered king. “As for therole of the army after the
election, once we have a new elected government, the army will withdraw
and return to their units to be a professional military again.”

Sonthi,
59, delivered a broad defense of the coup and the junta at a time when
concerns over political and economic instability are growing in this
Southeast Asian nation of 62.5 million people.

The Sept. 19 coup
that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was initially embraced by
political opposition leaders and pro-democracy advocates, who had
assailed Thaksin as a corrupt autocrat attempting to manipulate the
constitution to prolong his rule. But the junta’s popularity has ebbed
in recent weeks following an escalation of violence with Islamic
separatists in the south, a series of bombings in Bangkok, slow
progress on a new constitution, and the adoption of populist economic
measures and capital controls that have alarmed foreign investors.

Under
Thaksin, Thailand was one of the Bush administration’s closest regional
allies in fighting terrorism, particularly because of its aggressive
battle against insurgents in the largely Muslim south of this
majority-Buddhist nation. But the new government controlled by the
military’s Council for National Security — headed by Sonthi, himself a
Muslim — has toed a far more tolerant line.

Pressing for
national reconciliation, the military has offered apologies for past
excesses in the south, and the council-appointed caretaker prime
minister — a former general — has sought to engage Muslims in
dialogue. Despite such measures, fighting in the south appears to have
increased since September, according to a study by Bangkok’s
Chulalongkorn University.

Sonthi said Wednesday that the policy
of engagement would not change. “The use of force, a hard approach,
will not do any good,” he said.

Yet the sense of insecurity is
ballooning here, in large part because of a series of nine bombings on
New Year’s Eve that killed three people and wounded 27 in Bangkok, the
typically peaceful capital.

Sonthi said the bombings appear to be
unrelated to the conflict in the south. Although 19 suspects were
quickly arrested and questioned, all were released this week after
authorities determined they were not connected to the incident. In
other violence, unknown assailants used grenade launchers in a failed
attack this week against a Bangkok newspaper.

The junta initially
blamed Thaksin loyalists for the New Year’s bombings, an accusation
that Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon living in exile between Europe and
Asia since the coup, has strongly denied. Others have blamed that
incident and other violence on disgruntled police or military forces
opposed to the junta. Sonthi said authorities did not yet know who was
responsible, but suggested the attacks were “politically motivated” and
aimed at damaging the military government’s credibility.

There
are signs that such a strategy could be working. Opposition leaders who
effectively endorsed the coup have begun to openly criticize the junta.
“The very least that a military regime can do is provide security and
enforce the law,” Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the Democrat Party, said
in an interview Wednesday. “But we are seeing that they cannot even do
this.”

A committee of council-appointed officials has been attempting to
hash out a new draft constitution to pave the way for elections by
September. Despite Sonthi’s assurances, analysts say the process has
been slow, raising the specter that elections — and the restoration of
democracy — could be delayed.

Even with a constitution and
elections, Thai opinion leaders have said the nation may have to accept
a sort of quasi-democracy, at least initially. One proposal being
floated would create a senate with some members appointed, directly or
indirectly, by the military.

“Thailand is not likely to emerge from this with a pure, Western form
of democracy,” said Panithan Wattanayakorn, a professor of political
science and defense at Chulalongkorn, suggesting that the government
could be “watched over by the military” in some way.

Business leaders have jumped on the military government for
mismanaging the economy, particularly by imposing capital controls
meant to stem a rise in the value of the Thai baht. Announced suddenly
in December, the controls prompted a one-day stock market dive that
abated only after the measures were eased.

From exile, Thaksin has remained a vocal figure on the world stage,
and a major thorn in Sonthi’s side. In a flurry of recent interviews in
Singapore and Tokyo, Thaksin denounced the junta while also calling on
it to promote national unity and restore democracy, two concepts he
himself was accused of flouting during his tenure.

“Thais have enjoyed democracy and do not want to be under a dictatorship,” Thaksin told Japan’s Asahi newspaper this week. “They can be patient and tolerant about such things to some extent, but not for too long.”

Thaksin
has vowed to stay out of Thailand for now, telling reporters he fears
attempts on his life there. Sonthi responded Wednesday by saying that
Thaksin is simply trying to divert attention from investigations here
expected to lead to charges linking him, his family and his close
associates to vast corruption.

Sonthi maintained that Thaksin was welcome to come back to Thailand — but at his own risk.

“During
the Thaksin era, there were hundreds of thousands of Thai people coming
out to protest him and his government,” Sonthi said. “It is very
dangerous for a man to have hundreds of thousands of people disliking
him. I cannot say whether or not it is safe for him because of this
reason.”

For Sonthi, the problem appears to be that the junta is
increasingly being viewed by many Thais as having overstayed its
welcome.

“I didn’t like Thaksin and I was glad to see him go,”
said Chaianant Ngeuykham, 53, a vendor whose shop sits near the site of
one of the New Year’s Eve bombings. “But it’s time for elections. It’s
time for the military to let go.”

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