Not the will of the junta

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With the Thai military-installed government not exactly proving
to be up to the mark, what are the chances of former PM Thaksin
returning?

Pranay Sharma Bangkok

Thailand
Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont had once remarked, “I am
convinced the army should not get involved in politics.” That was 15
years ago. At that time, Surayud was the commander of the Special
Warfare Force. In subsequent years, he moved up the military ladder to
become the chief of the Thai army and later its supreme commander. On
his retirement from the army he was made a member of the King’s Privy
Council.

Today, as head of the military-installed interim government, Surayud has a different perspective of both the army and politics.

Though
people in Thailand are no stranger to the army picking up the reigns of
running the country, questions are being asked whether Surayud is tough
enough to do the job. Part of the problem lies in Surayud’s self-image.
He comes from a family of military leaders, but his father, Lt Colonel
Phayom Chulanont, had defected from the Royal Thai Army to join the
communists and went on to become the Chief of Staff of the People’s
Liberation Army of Thailand.

His father’s defection did not
affect Surayud’s career in the Thai Royal Army. But it was apparent
that he always carried that chip on his shoulder. As a young officer he
conducted operations against forces of the Communist Party of Thailand
when his father was one of its key leaders. He had even told his son at
one time that they should help each other “redeem the tarnished family
name of Chulanont” so that the people of Thailand could look up to it.

But
Surayud and members of the Council of National Security—as the junta in
Thailand calls itself, are under mounting pressure. The military rulers
who staged a coup in September last year have little to show by way of
progress. The popularity rating of the junta that was well above 60 per
cent at the time of the coup has now dropped to the 20s, and is
dropping further with each passing week.

“Security and social
unity” was the main plank that coup leader General Sonthi Boonyartkalin
had cited when he appointed Surayud as prime minister of the new regime
on October 1 last year. But the policies of the government on all key
issues have been left hanging so frequently that neither the people of
Thailand nor foreign investors are sure of the direction the country is
heading under the junta.

Its refusal to share avian flu samples
with the World Health Organisation, the decision to impose capital
controls on foreign investment and limiting shareholding of foreign
investors in telecommunication firms have raised concerns among
Thailand’s trade and business partners. The situation has been
compounded further with the government’s inability to improve the law
and order situation, particularly in tackling insurgency in the
southern part of the country.

On Chinese New Year’s Day this
year, there were 38 bomb attacks, 26 cases of arson and seven ambushes.
Predictably, after the incident the popularity rating of the military
regime plummeted to 12.5 per cent among the people of Bangkok.

Surayud,
a believer of Feng Shui, responded by having the government house
re-landscaped and getting pictures of all former prime ministers from
the building removed. In between, he also had key cabinet portfolios
changed and threatened to resign from his post in the wake of his
reported differences with General Sonthi.

The broad contours of
the new constitution that the junta presented to the people on April
19, replacing the earlier one of 1997, has raised many questions on how
democratic Thailand would be in the coming days.

Surayud and
the other members of the Council for National Security have promised to
hold elections in the country by the end of the year. But his
government has to take a much bigger decision later this month.

The
Constitution Tribunal on May 30—popularly dubbed the “Judgment Day” by
the Thai media—would rule whether or not to dissolve the country’s two
largest political parties, the Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat, for
alleged election frauds.

Thai Rak Thai is ousted prime minister
Thaksin’s party. Many political commentators in the country see the
move as an attempt to block Thaksin’s possible re-entry into the
country and participation in the year-end election. Thaksin, who was in
New York attending the UN General Assembly at the time of the September
coup, has not returned to Thailand since.

But the ousted prime
minister has faced the heat from the Constitution Tribunal even
earlier. On August 3, 2001, a similar charge was brought against
Thaksin that could have barred him from politics for five years. On
that day, his supporters surrounded the court’s compound and launched a
countrywide signature campaign to prevent Thaksin from being debarred.

It
was a close shave for Thaksin. The 8 to 7 ruling in his favour by the
tribunal judges saved him and allowed Thaksin to become prime minister
for the next five years. But one of the members of the tribunal
confessed later that it was political exigency rather than the merit of
the case that allowed the verdict in favour of Thaksin. Many of the
Tribunal members had then feared that barring Thaksin from politics
could lead to violence and protests in different parts of the country.

The
dip in the junta’s popularity rating has not necessarily gone in
Thaksin’s favour. The situation now is different from the one witnessed
in 2001. Thaksin, who had won a landslide victory in the elections just
seven months before, had evoked hope and confidence among the people of
Thailand to bring the country out of the economic crisis of the late
1990s.

When he was ousted from power last year, Thaksin had
already become unpopular and people in Thailand and outside were
holding him responsible for the months of political stalemate that
preceded the coup.

Though his supporters are getting more vocal
with each passing day, it is difficult to predict whether this would
mean the tribunal would rule in favour of Thai Rak Thai. A decision not
to ban either Thai Rak Thai or the Democrat could also mean a signal
for the second line of leaders to fall in line with the military rulers.

If
Thai Rak Thai is not dissolved, it would also put the cliché to test on
the kind of hold and influence Thaksin continues to have over his
cadres. If he manages to keep his flock together, a situation might
then evolve for his early return to Thailand and contest the December
election. If he wins, that could spell trouble for Surayud and other
key members of the Council for National Security.

Interestingly,
in all this the person whose name has not been dragged in the
controversy is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although everybody knows that
without his express command and blessings neither the coup nor
appointment of Surayud or the installation of the CNS would have been
possible.

King Bhumibol is not only the world’s longest serving
head of state, but he is also the longest serving monarch in Thai
history. He has a sharp mind and an acute political sense. The fact
that he has been in his position for so long is partly because of his
immense popularity among the Thais, who regard him as a demi-god, and
the immense power he wields under the constitution of the country.

Any
criticism of the King or his action is banned in Thailand and falls
under lesse magiste or “disrespect” to the monarch. His role in the
political crises  in Thailand in the past has never been questioned nor
would it be in the  coming months.

If Thaksin manages to come
back to power in the near future, his ire would be directed against
Surayud, General Sonthi and others in the Council of National Security.
But the closest that he could come in directing his attack to the
Palace would perhaps be on the King’s Privy Council. And as the
President of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda would then be the
fall guy.

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