Thailand Sings the Post-coup Blues

Asia Sentinel

Daniel Ten Kate

  
28 March 2007


Six months after tanks rolled into Bangkok, uncertainty rules

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The six-month report cards for the coupmakers are in, and most
Thais aren’t impressed with their military leaders.

This doesn’t mean a majority is clamoring for Thaksin
Shinawatra’s return, although it’s impossible to tell since the deposed premier
has been in exile since the September 19 putsch, and will likely only be
allowed back in the country either to face criminal charges or after the next
election, whichever comes first.

Still, the sharp drop in popularity of Prime Minister
Surayud Chulanont’s government has been remarkable. Five months ago, Surayud’s
popularity rating was soaring at more than 70 percent; now it’s below 35 percent.

The slide began on December 18, when the central bank, with
strong urging from then-finance minister Pridiyathorn Devakula, imposed a 30%
reserve measure on foreign currency inflows. The move prompted the largest
one-day fall in the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s history, and at the same time
wiped away the veneer of technocratic competence that coup supporters had
bestowed upon the cabinet of wise old men.

Two weeks or so later on New Year’s Eve, a string of
coordinated bomb attacks in Bangkok killed three and wounded more than 30.
Suddenly the coup didn’t seem so bloodless after all, and the
military-installed leaders looked as if they couldn’t provide security in Bangkok or to the restive
majority Malay-Muslim southernmost provinces.

Now Surayud’s government is facing criticism from all sides.
Business leaders have lost confidence, newspaper columnists are disillusioned,
academics are gloomy, democracy activists are becoming bolder and southern
insurgents are ratcheting up their brutal attacks. Thailand is again mired in
political uncertainty, and the road to fresh elections looks filled with
potholes.


“There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the
tunnel,”
said Prudhisan Jumbala, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn
University.

The military leaders have tried to put a positive spin on
things, holding a press briefing last week to spell out their few
accomplishments. Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin insisted the timetables for
drafting a constitution, putting it to a referendum and then holding a general
election later this year all remain on track.

Some very large questions remain:

 

  • Can the government maintain security?

    Since the New Year’s Eve bombings, Bangkok
    has seen a fair share of bomb hoaxes, false alarms and warnings. No major
    incidents have occurred since, but the prospect of more violence lingers
    in the background.
    Although the military dismissed any link between the Bangkok blasts and southern insurgents,
    police are now saying such a link might be possible. New police chief,
    Seripisut Temiyavej, has issued four arrest warrants for people captured
    on closed-circuit television at the bombing sites, but no arrests have been
    made and police have not released the identities of the suspected bombers.
    Certainly any arrests linking the bombers to the southern insurgency would
    further undermine the credibility of the government, which immediately pointed
    the finger at Thaksin and his buddies in the military and police.
    The generals had good reason to deflect attention away from the South as
    they touted a softer approach towards the insurgency than Thaksin. Some
    experts initially thought the new coup group might present an opportunity
    for peace in the region, but things look to be getting worse in a conflict
    that has claimed more than 2,100 lives since January 2004. Last week, a
    group of Muslims ambushed a commuter minivan in Yala and eight Buddhists,
    including two teenage girls, were executed with gunshots to the head; the
    driver was spared after he was heard praying to Allah. The news prompted the
    military to order a curfew in certain districts across the South, and
    outraged Buddhists.
    Generals have warned that militants are increasingly using “Al
    Qaeda-style” tactics of targeting civilians. Officials are now seeking Malaysia’s
    help and Sonthi is looking to increase troop levels. The royal family in
    particular has expressed concern for peace to return to the region.
    Surayud said last week that the government would follow Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara’s
    suggestion to arm local villagers so they can protect themselves.
    “People are realizing that a real watershed moment is occurring down
    South,” said a Western diplomat. “They are very worried about sectarian
    violence taking root, which is a fire that takes much longer to put out.
    People are also upset with how the South is being managed, and depending
    on how senior that gets, we might see a changing of the guard.”

 

  • Will the junta punish Thaksin and Thai
    Rak Thai?

    At the press conference trumpeting the coup group’s accomplishments,
    Sonthi pleaded for patience in bringing charges against Thaksin, whom the
    military said they booted out largely because of rampant corruption.
    Of 14 corruption cases, the Assets Examination Committee so far has only
    forwarded one to prosecutors against Thaksin’s wife and her stepbrother
    for allegedly evading tax on the 1997 transfer of Shin Corp shares worth
    738 million baht ($22 million). Kaewsan Athiphothi, secretary-general of
    the ASC, said in an interview that “sufficient evidence” exists
    to bring charges against Thaksin himself in two cases, though he declined
    to give specific details.
    Concerning criticism that the committee is taking too long, Kaewsan said:
    “People don’t know anything. Some cases we have to look at behind
    closed doors and we can’t tell anything to anyone. It’s up to people what
    they want to think, but if you are the police or the prosecutor, being
    criticized is part of the job.”
    The ASC term expires in one year, so the next six months should reveal
    what goods they have. “Within the next five months every case must be
    brought to the prosecutor,” he said. “We don’t need more time; we need
    more manpower. We are so tired.”
    As the cases against Thaksin move slowly, the case against the party he
    founded in 1998 is underway. A junta-created legal body, the Constitutional
    Tribunal is hearing cases to dissolve Thai Rak Thai and the main
    opposition Democrat party for alleged fraud in the boycotted — and
    subsequently nullified — election of April 2, 2006.
    Legal experts say party dissolution was only put into the now-defunct 1997
    Constitution to prevent the rise of militant communist-style parties that
    once advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Many see the
    dissolution cases as political retribution.
    Speculation that the court will dissolve Thai Rak Thai has prompted
    several major factions to leave the party. None is more important than
    Somsak Thepsuthin’s Wang Nam Yom faction, which was a Thai Rak Thai with
    more than 100 MPs. It has already formed a new political group called
    Matchima, or Middle Way,
    and will likely appoint former Thai Rak Thai economic guru Somkid
    Jatusripitak as its leader.
    Somkid has adeptly managed a transition from key Thaksin associate to
    friend of the junta. Many political analysts see Matchima as a strong
    political force that could propel Somkid to the premiership whenever
    elections are held. Assuming another coup doesn’t take place before then.

  • Finally, what will the next
    constitution say, and will people accept it?



    The junta’s constitution drafters are set to finish a first draft of the
    new charter on April 15 and finish it by July 6. Then the country will
    vote on whether to accept it. If the constitution is rejected, then the
    interim constitution states that the cabinet and junta-appointed
    legislature will get together and choose any of Thailand’s previous 17
    charters, make any revisions they want, and within 30 days it will become
    supreme law of the land.
    Although the referendum was meant to give the Constitution credibility and
    make it more “democratic,” many are already wondering what will motivate
    voters. Prasong Soonsiri, a former intelligence chief and the lead
    constitution drafter, has said the government’s lagging popularity might
    prompt people to vote against the constitution. Others say a widespread
    movement against the constitution would only take place if they introduce
    clauses for a non-elected premier, which could spark an uprising. Still
    others say that it’s impossible to vote yes or no on a long and highly
    complex document, especially when the alternative is unclear.
    “How many people will be able to decide rationally about whether to vote
    yes or no on the constitution?” asked Chulalonkorn’s Prudhisan. “I’m not
    even sure whether I’m capable of looking through 300 or so articles and
    making a yes or no decision.”
    As for what the document might say, bits and pieces have leaked out. So
    far, the loudest debates have been over the issue of a non-elected PM,
    whether to make Buddhism the national religion, the number of
    parliamentarians and a clause that would absolve the coupmakers of any
    blame.

    Most blatantly, however, the new constitution looks set to increase
    substantially the power of the judiciary and other non-elected actors,
    particularly through a Senate that will be appointed by a newly created
    “selection committees.” The judiciary, and particularly the Supreme Court,
    will have more duties — seemingly in response to the king’s speech in
    April 2006 where he called on the country’s top judges to solve the
    country’s political problems. Judges will play a greater role in independent
    bodies like the National Counter Corruption Commission and take over
    certain responsibilities from the Election Commission.  They will also be able to name an
    interim prime minister and cabinet when a sitting prime minister calls for
    an election. “The bureaucracy will govern Thailand
    again,”
    said Vorajet Phakheerat, a law lecturer at Thammasat University.
    “The country will go back to the Prem system of 20 years ago, and that’s
    not good.”


    The references to former general Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads the king’s
    19-member Privy Council, foreshadows what could grow into a movement
    against the constitution, and ultimately the coup leaders themselves.
    Several anti-coup groups have vowed to campaign against the constitution because
    they see Prem as the root of the problem.
    A recent protest by the Confederation for Democracy was staged in front of
    Prem’s house to urge the 86-year-old senior statesman to stop pulling
    strings from behind the scenes. He is a close confidante of chief
    constitution drafter Prasong, whom the pro-democracy protestors see as the
    last person who would usher in an improved democracy.
    Attacks on Prem are not taken lightly, as Thaksin found out last September
    after making a veiled reference to Prem when he accused an unnamed figure
    of trying to overthrow his government. Many fear that increased agitation
    against the powerful privy councilor may prompt authorities to get tough
    on protesters.

 

All in all, Thailand’s
political future is very much up in the air. Worst of all for the idealists who
thought that Thaksin’s ouster would lead to a cleaner democracy, there is not
much to be optimistic about.

“Things now are chaotic, and in a chaotic situation, we need
some positive events to have new hope,” said the ASC’s Kaewsan. “But right now
we don’t have any new hope.”

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