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POLITICS-THAILAND: Junta Slips on Coup Promises

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 30 2006 (IPS) - The political temperature in Thailand is poised to rise in the new year as the country’s military leaders scramble to retain their fast eroding legitimacy following the mid-September coup.

December marked the end of the honeymoon this South-east Asian country’s junta and its military-appointed government had enjoyed for over two months. Visible cracks have appeared on issues that the post-coup regime had held up as its triumph cards. These include the idea that the military has the country’s interest, not personal agendas, at heart.

But as 2006 drew to a close, the two men who have come to define the current regime – Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader, and the military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army chief – are facing embarrassing exposures by pro-democracy activists. Sonthi is being accused by an anti-coup group of having two wives, which if proved is a violation of two articles in the country criminal codes. Surayud is being faulted by anti-coup voices for an irregular land deal, where he is alleged to have built a home on property meant for landless farmers.

These revelations that taint the moral record the junta has been trying to cash in on after ousting the twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have added to more woes on the efficiency front. The country’s finance minister has been pilloried by sections of the media for a decision to impose controls on the country’s currency, the baht, being traded. It resulted in the crash of the Thai stock market, wiping off 820 billion baht (23.4 billion U.S. dollars).

That this ‘’blunder” happened on the third month of the coup, Dec. 19, was not lost on analysts here as a fitting sign of the troubles that lie ahead for a regime that has no tested electoral base nor large popular support across the country. The only thread it is hanging on to is the blessings the coup leaders have received from the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Little wonder why some analysts are resorting to the dramatic to consider the realities that await Thailand in 2007. ‘’It will be a year of living dangerously,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS. ‘’The signs the country faces are ominous.”

Some of the decisions made by the military government are expected to provoke anger in a country that has, over the past 15 years, gained more awareness about democracy and citizens’ rights after decades of rule under military regimes.

Stark among them is the revelation during the last cabinet meeting in 2006 to approve 556 million bahts (15.8 million U.S. dollars) to fund a ‘’secretive” 14,000-strong special security force to keep a watch – and control – on political dissent in areas in the north and north-east of the country where Thaksin enjoys wide support.

That came after the military rulers used the political conditions weighing in their favour to give themselves salary hikes and place senior members of the armed forces in top jobs at major state-owned companies, including at the national carrier Thai Airways.

Politically, too, the ruling regime have hinted at a possible shift away from accepted democratic norms of selecting a new government, including a push for the prime minister to be an appointed figure rather than one elected at a general election. A similar tendency to limit the public’s role in the political process has also alarmed pro-democracy activists in another area, drafting the new constitution, Thailand’s 18th since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Such decisions reveal how the current regime has ‘’mishandled the post coup period, despite enjoying wide support when it happened,” adds Thitinan. ‘’They came to power saying they will be better than the Thaksin government, more open and democratic, but this difference is eroding. People will soon be asking, what was the point of the coup?”

That question, in fact, is likely due to the failure of the military government to nail the ousted prime minister for his alleged record of corruption and nepotism. They were two reasons that angered middle- and upper-middle class citizens in Bangkok during the first half of 2006, prompting large anti-Thaksin street demonstrations that paved the way for the coup.

Public expectations were high soon after the latest coup – the 18th successful one in 70 years – that the new military regime would go after the ousted premier’s wealth in the same way previous coup leaders had done after deposing corrupt politicians in the past.

The lack of a breakthrough to bring formal charges against Thaksin has been made worse by the junta, which calls itself the Council for National Security (CNS), building a protective wall around the country to prevent Thaksin, currently residing in Beijing, returning to the country.

Such measures have amplified the view that the CNS feels increasingly insecure with a Thaksin in its midst – despite claiming that they have substantial public support for the coup. For Thaksin, say some analysts, can attract a large crowd if he returns, in particularly from his voter base among the rural poor who gained substantially from his pro-poor polices since his party’s first electoral triumph in January 2001.

‘’The coup leaders know that they are dealing with a formidable challenge in Thaksin,” Thanet Aphornsuvan, professor of history at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, told IPS. ‘’He is unique because of the support he got.”

But the game in town – of keeping Thaksin away from the country – and the junta’s attempts to silence the sections of the media open to Thaksin’s views are destined to erode the junta’s democratic credentials further. ‘’When the CNS decided to create its own style of government, it should have thought about opposing voices,” says Thanet. ‘’Otherwise they will run into problems.”

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