Exclusive: Thailand’s coup leader talks to TIME

Thai General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, photographed in Bangkok on February 27, 2007

HELEN KUDRICH FOR TIME

For a general who led Thailand’s first coup in 15 years, Sonthi
Boonyaratglin is projecting a deliberately civilian image. Dressed in a
dapper dark suit and yellow tie, Sonthi eschewed his usual army uniform
for his Feb. 27 meeting with TIME’s Hannah Beech and Robert Horn. But a
suit, no matter how handsome, cannot suspend the reality that a
military junta, called the Council for National Security (CNS), now
runs the country. The CNS ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra last Sept. 19. At first, the overthrow of the billionaire
P.M. was greeted with much public acclaim. Today, however, the CNS is
increasingly under fire for a lack of vision and high-profile policy
missteps. Although the junta promised to restore stability to Thailand
after months of anti-Thaksin street protests, bombs erupted in the
capital on New Year’s Eve, and violence in the country’s largely Muslim
south has escalated. The CNS-appointed government spooked investors by
briefly unveiling capital controls and proposing limits on foreign
businesses in Thailand. At the same time, it has been promoting a
poorly understood economic model called the “sufficiency theory.” (Last
week, Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula quit his post, citing
divisions within the government on economic policy.) Nor has any firm
date been set for Thailand’s next elections, an indication of whether
democracy will return to the country. And though alleged corruption by
Thaksin was one of the reasons the junta gave for moving tanks onto the
streets, the process of bringing charges against the former P.M.
through an investigation by the Assets Scrutiny Committee—a team
handpicked by the coup leaders—has been slow. Despite the criticisms of
the CNS, Sonthi, 60, still commands support from many Thais, not least
because of his reputation as an incorruptible soldier in a country
where both politicians and military brass have been accused of
illegally profiting from their positions. In his conversation with
TIME, the general defended the coup as the only way to stabilize
Thailand, and vowed that, unlike previous Thai military leaders, he
does not see politics as a long-term career. Excerpts:

TIME: You were once held up as the epitome of the professional soldier. What made you take political action?


SONTHI:
Thailand has a unique democratic system in which its people want to be under an administration with the King as the head of state. But, in recent years, the democratic system the people wanted was not the democratic system we got. There was interference with many organizations, especially the independent organizations established to oversee and scrutinize the government’s actions. The previous government wanted to control the whole system. That [led to] large-scale corruption [and] vote buying during local and general elections. The people knew about these things and they could not accept it. As far as the army staging a coup, we could not just do it on our own. We needed the consent of the people to help us preserve democracy.

TIME: What did the Thaksin administration do to violate this royal character of Thai democracy?


SONTHI:

It is a very sensitive question. There are many cases in which the
previous government was impolite to the royal family and to the King himself. The Thai people cannot and will not tolerate anybody who shows even slight disrespect to the King or his family.

TIME: How do you respond to Western criticism of the coup as a step back for democracy?


SONTHI:

Everybody wants to walk forward if the path is clear. But if we walk
forward and see that there are thorns in front, it is not wise to walk
on top of those thorns. It is better to stop, step back and find
another way around.

TIME: Does it concern you that local surveys show you and interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont losing popularity?


SONTHI:

We Thais typically like [someone] very quickly, and get bored very
quickly as well. You judge a horse over distance. You judge a man over
time. Time will judge what we have done.

TIME: The interim government introduced capital controls that it had
to quickly roll back and has proposed amendments to the Foreign
Business Act, both of which hurt investor confidence.


SONTHI:

Foreign investors worry about stability and security before they
invest. It is our duty to secure this stability and security. Since
Sept. 19, we have issued a clear statement to foreign investors that
any agreements that have been signed or will occur in future will be
[valid]. What we want is business as usual.

TIME: Why is it taking so long to bring corruption charges against Thaksin?

SONTHI:
The reason we have taken so much time is that the Assets Scrutiny
Committee is a very small organization. It is small because we intended
it to be small. Not many people are working there because of the
need-to-know basis, and the confidential information we need to keep
limited to a small community. The previous government and previous
Prime Minister have planted many personnel within various government
ministries and organizations. So we need to take the precaution of
using a small group of people to try to get the most information we can
to make an effective case against him.

TIME: Are you confident that charges will eventually be brought against Thaksin?


SONTHI:
Yes, absolutely.

TIME: Thaksin has vowed not to re-enter politics. Do you believe him?


SONTHI:

One can enter politics in many ways. You can control politics from
behind the scenes. The most important thing in politics is money. If
you have cash, you can have somebody do things for you. I believe that
even if he says he is not entering politics, he can still control
political parties. As to who will be in front, I cannot say.

TIME: The previous government would not negotiate with the
insurgents in Thailand’s south, preferring a military solution. You
have adopted a more conciliatory approach. Yet violence persists. Why?


SONTHI:

With 99% of the population down south, we are trying to instill a sense
of patriotism, a love of country and of monarch. The remaining 1% are
the perpetrators. Our troops are seeking out these groups; we will try
to bring them in using a political approach, a soft approach. But if
that fails, then we will use another way.

TIME: When will prime ministerial elections be held, and will the military maintain any political role after the elections?


SONTHI:

We are looking at a new election by the end of this year. The military
will withdraw from politics and we will become, as we want to be,
professional soldiers who will help develop the country any way we can.

TIME: Some people believe members of the military may use a proxy party to put forward their own candidate.


SONTHI:

As I have said, to enter the political arena, cash is the most
important thing. I do not see any military officers in the CNS who have
that [kind] of political ambition and money.

TIME: Will you run for Prime Minister?


SONTHI:
No.


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