Thai Junta Going the Burma Way?

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POLITICS: Thai Junta Going the Burma Way?

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Jul 11 (IPS) – Thailand’s junta leader, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, is
in danger of inviting comparisons with military strongmen in
neighbouring Burma, where successive generals have refused to transfer
power to a civilian administration for decades.

Suspicions have been triggered by the vague language Sonthi used while explaining
his political future beyond a general election scheduled to be held at
the end of the year. A debate is now swirling in the press and in
university circles here about the political ambitions of the country’s
army chief, who came to power following a coup last September, the
country’s 18th putsch.

‘’He could have ruled out all speculation that he wants to be
made the prime minister after the poll by simply saying no to the
job,’’ Michael Nelson, a German academic specialising in Thai political
culture, told IPS. ‘’By being evasive, he is showing that he entertains
the idea that he want to jump into politics.’’

‘’This is making people jittery about the true intentions of
the coup, which was to return power back to the people,’’ he added.
‘’It seems like an effort by the army to regain lost glory after its
powers and prestige was reduced in the late 1990s.’’

‘’Sonthi came under fire from critics and allies alike on
Sunday for playing games and planning a return to power by the
people,’’ reports Tuesday’s edition on ‘The Nation’, an
English-language daily. ‘’It follows fresh speculation that he will run
in the next general elections under a new political party backed by the

Burma’s military generals, who have held power since a 1962
coup, are in the process of getting a new constitution approved by a
military-appointed constitutional assembly. Following that, a
referendum will be held in that South-east Asian nation. But this
charter has language that aims to cement the military’s power in the
country as an over-arching force, consequently undermining pledges made
by the Burmese junta that the constitution will usher in democracy and
give power to the people.

The prospect of Sonthi succumbing to the ‘Burma syndrome’ has
been fed by Thailand’s new charter, approved by a military-appointed,
constitution-drafting assembly earlier this month. This document,
Thailand’s 18th constitution since becoming a constitutional monarchy
in 1932, is to face a referendum in mid-August.

‘’Although the regime in Thailand has been at pains throughout
to deny comparisons being made between it and its counterpart in
neighbouring Burma, it is increasingly difficult to avoid them,’’
argued the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a statement released
over the weekend. ‘’In Burma too the junta is putting the finishing
touches on a constitution that has the purpose of cementing the role of
the military in state affairs for years to come and ensure the
continued impunity of senior officers for any alleged wrongdoing.’’

‘’It is by now clear that if the referendum is passed and the
bogus draft constitution brought into law it will return Thailand to a
1980s model of elite-bureaucratic government under military guidance,’’
added the Hong Kong-based non-governmental body. ‘’If it is not, the
military regime reserves the right to pick and amend any of the
country’s previous constitutions in its stead. In either case, the
generals have already taken steps to ensure that their presence will
again be felt heavily throughout Thailand for many years to come.’’

Analysts like Thitinan Pongsudhirak say that the junta has
spent the last nine months ‘’gradually institutionalising the
military’s role in politics’’ to ensure that the it ‘’remains as a body
with influence after the parliamentary elections.’’

Consequently, the coup leaders are shredding the compliments
the military were showered with last year for driving from power former
prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra through the putsch, said Thitinan,
who is the director of the Institute of Security and International
Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’The statements then
that it was a good coup have become a myth.’’

Of particular concern, he explained in an interview, were the
‘’subtle and sophisticated ways’’ in which the junta has been shaping
its political agenda, often doing so ‘’within the law’’ to avoid overt
criticism. The dramatic spike in the military budget is a case in
point, where defence spending has gone up by 66 percent in the two
national budgets presented to the country’s army-appointed parliament
since last year’s coup. The defence bill for the 2007-2008 budget is
4.5 billion US dollars.

As alarming to human rights groups is the junta’s move to
resurrect a security law that was used during the Cold War to go after
members of the Communist Party of Thailand and others deemed enemies of
the state. The Internal Security Act, which the junta wants passed by
the members of the parliament that it appointed, is ‘’the key measure
to re-establish the Army as a government within government,’’ noted a
respected commentator who writes under the pseudonym ‘Chang Noi’ in
Monday’s edition of ‘The Nation’.

‘’What the law does is give massive new powers to the army
chief,’’ adds Chang Noi. ‘’It make him in many ways more powerful than
the prime minister, and not answerable to anyone.’’

If approved, the act will see the return of the Internal
Security Operations Command (ISOC). Among the powers at this
military-run agency’s disposal would be to ban public assemblies, block
roads, detain suspects for up to 30 days without any charges, hold
people deemed threats to national security, conduct searches on
premises without any warrants, confine people to house arrests, and
seize and confiscate anything considered suspicious.

But the Thai military will not have a free run with such plans, says
Thanet Aphornsuvan, assistant professor of history at Bangkok’s
Thammasat University. ‘’They will be aware of what happened in 1992.
They will probably want to follow the public mood before making a
decision; even Gen. Sonthi’s plans to become the prime minister.’’

That year saw a bloody showdown between the military and a
pro-democracy movement on the streets of Bangkok, resulting in over 40
deaths and over 100 people going missing. It came after Gen. Suchinda
Kraprayoon, who had come to power through a coup the previous year,
refused to hand over authority to a civilian government following a
general election. He took on the role of prime minister with the
support of five political parties after resigning in April 1992 as the
supreme commander-in-chief and head of the military.

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