Thailand: A Crisis of Confidence

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April 09, 2007 21 54  GMT

Summary

Ten days before Thailand’s constitutional
draft is due for release, Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was
unexpectedly admitted into a hospital the morning of April 9. The chaos
and speculation surrounding his hospitalization only emphasizes the
public’s lack of confidence in the current military-installed
government’s ability to govern. In crisis-management mode, the
government is trying to pre-empt any potential opposition uprising once
the draft is announced but remains fundamentally unconfident in its
ability to retain control up to and beyond December’s elections.

Analysis

Thai
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont unexpectedly checked into a hospital
on the morning of April 9, reportedly for a scheduled routine checkup
that will keep him hospitalized for at least four days. Surayud had to
cancel an engagement in Macau because of his hospitalization, which
suggests the checkup was not scheduled as claimed. This has led to mass
speculations circulating throughout Bangkok about a deepening rift
between Surayud and his military regime sponsors. Whatever the reason
behind Surayud’s hospitalization might be, the ad hoc and disjointed
way in which the government is handling events in the run up to the
announcement of the new constitutional draft shows that the regime
still lacks confidence in its ability to retain control in the long run.

The regime has struggled to consolidate domestic support and demonstrate clear leadership
ever since the September 2006 ouster of the last government under
former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Public confidence in the
current regime’s governance skills has never been high — an opinion
rooted in the government’s failure to arrest and convict those
responsible for the New Year’s Eve bombings,
quell militant violence in the south and prosecute Thaksin for the
corruption for which he was ousted. The immediate public assumption
that Surayud’s hospital checkup must indicate a critical split between
the prime minister and Army Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin — rather
than preventive health care — proves that the public not only doubts
the government’s ability to govern, it doubts the government’s ability
to hold itself together.

The constitutional draft due April
19 is meant to lay down the basics of Thailand’s new democratic
constitution, the call for which legitimized the coup led by Sonthi in
2006. However, the military regime’s recent attempts
to squash any opposition ability to spark mass uprisings and to meddle
in the drafting of the new constitution have raised doubts over how
pure the military government’s “democratic intent” is. In response,
opposition groups have sought to capitalize on this and started calling
together weekly rallies that could eventually evolve into mass
uprisings akin to those that overthrew Thaksin last year. Thousands of
demonstrators have gathered weekly in downtown Bangkok since March to
protest military rule despite the military’s threat to impose emergency
law.

The military considers Surayud to be too slow, indecisive
and violence-averse to be able to implement all the short-term measures
to pre-empt any mass uprising immediately before and after the draft is
announced; Surayud thwarted Sonthi’s attempt to declare emergency law
over Bangkok on March 28. Surayud’s four-day retreat was likely
engineered to free up the military to impose immediate emergency law in
Bangkok — which is now inevitable following unconfirmed reports of an
explosion late April 9 outside a theater (no injuries were reported).

Nevertheless,
the military currently has no viable replacement for Surayud and thus
still sees value in keeping him around. In other words, Surayud cannot
be written off just yet.

In the next few days, when Sonthi will
be able to act in the absence of any prime ministerial veto, he will
most likely impose emergency law. The actual constitutional draft
announcement will be brought forward by a week to coincide with the
four-day public holiday of Songkran, when coordination of any staged
protests will be particularly difficult since most people stream out of
Bangkok to their hometowns.

The military regime might have
bought itself more time to avert immediate instability within Bangkok,
but its ability to contain any mass public reaction to the draft
constitution will not be tested for another week or so until after the
draft has been released. More fundamental however, is that the regime
remains unconfident in its ability to carve out a place for itself in
Thailand’s political landscape for the long term.

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