Botched in Bangkok: Thailand’s military government flounders

Economist.com

Feb 28th 2007

LIKE Americans invading Iraq, the royalist generals who seized power in
Thailand in September won the initial battle easily, but did not have
much of a plan for what to do next. Ageing soldiers and bureaucrats in
charge of an interim government have bumbled their way through a series
of embarrassing reversals, goaded by the press and other lobbies.

The generals trapped themselves with their early declarations that
they wanted only to repair Thai democracy after the alleged abuse it
suffered under the government they deposed, headed by Thaksin
Shinawatra. They could scarcely then turn round and tell their critics
to shut up and obey.

Their latest fiasco has been an attempt to co-opt Somkid
Jatusripitak, one of Mr Thaksin’s lieutenants. Mr Somkid was ostensibly
being hired to explain economic policy: specifically, why the regime
was replacing populist, free-market policies known locally as
Thaksinomics” with a vague doctrine called the “sufficiency economy
which was the gift of King Bhumibol, Thailand’s venerated monarch.

But Mr Somkid, as one of the main authors of Thaksinomics, was a
peculiar choice. Some suspected he was being hired more as a front-man
for a plot by the military to retain power after elections due later
this year.

Whatever the truth, outrage from anti-Thaksin groups and the press
led to Mr Somkid’s resignation on February 21st, less than a week after
he had taken the job. The reverberations have continued: on February
28th Pridiyathorn Devakula, the much-criticised finance minister and
deputy prime minister, resigned, expressing anger at the decision to
appoint Mr Somkid, and attacking another colleague. This latest move
suggests, at the very least, a deep split within the government.

Most of the military government’s problems have been of its own
making. It panicked foreign investors with badly designed currency
controls and a senseless clampdown on foreign business ownership. It
failed to consult properly before announcing these policies, and was
forced to beat a partial retreat, making itself look even clumsier.

There were plenty of areas in which the generals could have improved
on the record of the former government—from shoddy construction of
Bangkok’s new airport, to a brutal mishandling of a Muslim insurgency
in Thailand’s southern provinces.

But they bungled these things too. The bloodshed in the south
worsened while they dithered over a Malaysian offer to mediate. There
have been rows and changes of plan over which airlines will return to
the old airport while the new one is fixed.

To the extent that Thailand’s volatile opinion polls can ever be
relied upon, the popularity of General Surayud Chulanont, the prime
minister, seems to be plunging.

Few will miss the generals when they go―if they go. The supposed
next step is that a panel chosen by the junta will produce a new draft
constitution which will include more checks and balances on executive
power. That will be put to a referendum, followed by national
elections.

But the generals may seek some continuing influence, mainly for fear
that Mr Thaksin’s camp will regain power and start prosecuting them for
the coup. Here lies the danger. The generals are so unpopular that if
they try to skew the new constitution too far in their favour, it could
well fail in the referendum, leaving the public angry and the way back
to democracy unclear.

As for Mr Thaksin, he has things to worry about too. Corruption
charges are now being filed against him; his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party
faces possible dissolution in a trial over alleged electoral
shenanigans; and several big chunks of TRT, including Mr Somkid’s
faction, have broken away.

Nevertheless, he remains popular, and he has pots of money from
selling his telecoms interests. His party has begun an election
campaign, flouting the military’s ban on political activities. The war
between the Thaksinites and the royalists may yet be heading, as
Americans might say, for a late “surge”.

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