Ex General to Lead Thailand
General Surayud Chulanont, a former army chief who is currently a member of the king’s inner circle, will likely be appointed interim prime minister by Thailand’s ruling military junta, reports said today.
Junta leader General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin told reporters Friday that the official announcement will likely come this weekend pending King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s approval of both the prime minister and an interim constitution.
The new prime minister is “somebody we know well,” Sonthi told reporters Friday. “He is someone who you will feel comfortable to wai (the traditional Thai sign of respect).”
In the 10 months of street protests calling for then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resign prior to the September 19 coup, Surayud was frequently mentioned as a potential royally appointed prime minister if the revered King had decided to intervene. Of course, the palace-approved coup rendered direct Royal intervention moot.
As a close friend of both Sonthi and Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s top adviser and a former general and Prime Minister himself, the appointment of Surayud will make it nearly impossible to distinguish the so-called civilian government from the military and palace power base that joined forces to take over the country.
Even so, Surayud, one of the most decorated soldiers in Thai military history, will likely be received well by the Thai public. He is viewed as independent, courageous and smart.
But it remains to be seen how the international community will view an appointed government headed by a retired general who once served as the coup leader’s boss.
While the coup seems to be popular with most Thais, foreigners remain skeptical. In response to the coup, the US announced Thursday that it was suspending nearly $24 million in military aid to Thailand.
"The United States continues to urge a rapid return to democratic rule and early elections in Thailand," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We look forward to being able to reinstate these programs after a democratically-elected government takes office.”
Installing an appointed civilian government is unlikely to convince Western countries that the junta is easing its grip. The European Union’s rotating presidency, currently held by Finland, said in a statement Thursday that it “attaches great importance to Thailand's speedy return to democracy and constitutional order, legitimized by free and democratic elections to be held as soon as possible.”
Junta leaders, who justified the coup by claiming Thaksin’s government was corrupt and had dismantled the country’s democratic institutions, have drafted an interim constitution that allows them to coexist with the appointed government. The charter also calls for a more comprehensive charter to be written within six months, followed by elections about a year from now.
Paradoxically, Surayud’s distinguished military career was defined by his attempts to disassociate the corrupt and coup-prone military from politics. When Surayud was a an army cadet, his father, Payom Chulanont, a former soldier who defected from the army to join communist insurgents, told him that the Thai military was more concerned with attaining power than protecting the powerless, Surayud told Time magazine in 2003.
Surayud’s mission became to transform the army into a professional organization that no longer served itself. That view was reinforced in 1992, when the special forces unit he commanded was seen forcefully cracking down on pro-democracy forces who hit the streets to protest the military regime of Suchinda Kraprayoon.
The incident “convinced me that the army should never be involved in politics,” Surayud told Time, which featured him in a section on “Asian Heroes.”
Surayud was on the verge of retirement in 1997 when Democrat Party Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai convinced him to become army commander. In this role, Surayud burnished his reputation as a consummate professional, getting rid of corrupt officials, modernizing weaponry and even allowing oppressed ethnic Karens to seek refuge in Thailand from the onslaught of Burma’s military.
It was this latter policy that helped put Surayud at odds with Thaksin when he became prime minister in 2001. The self-styled businessman politician favored a softer line with Burma’s ruling generals than Surayud, who fired upon Burmese forces when their clashes with minority groups spilled over into Thailand.
Tensions came to a head in June 2002, when Thaksin warned the military not to “overreact” when the Burmese fired into Thailand. Surayud publicly defended the army, saying it “hasn't done anything that could be called overreacting.”
That spat led rumors that a coup was imminent. Thaksin called a meeting with Surayud, who was close to Prem, and asked him if the military would try to oust him.
“I said that the military will never stage a coup,” Surayud told Thaksin at the time. “The country is in good order and nobody wants a seizure of power anymore.”
A few months later, Thaksin reshuffled Surayud, who had served as the army chief for four years, into the largely ceremonial position of supreme commander. After he retired from that position in 2003, Bhumibol promptly appointed him to the 19-member Privy Council.
Meanwhile, General Sonthi was rising through the ranks. Earlier in his career, Sonthi had served under Surayud in the Special Warfare Unit in Lop Buri province. He later followed Surayud as commander of the elite soldiers.
(In early September, four officers from the same Lop Buri unit that both Surayud and Sonthi had once commanded were implicated in a foiled attempt to assassinate Thaksin. The Lop Buri soldiers were also some of the first to help secure Bangkok on the night of the coup. It’s unclear if the investigation will go forward.)
With the support of both Surayud and Prem, the royalist Sonthi became army commander in 2005. In the months before the coup, the triumvirate of Surayud, Prem and Sonthi appeared to be working together.
Although not a privy councilor, Sonthi was seen as another spokesman for Bhumibol, who was head of the Armed Forces under the old 1997 Constitution scrapped by the junta.
In May, Sonthi sought to dispel coup rumors by meeting with the King.
"The situation in the country is a cause of great suffering for His Majesty," Sonthi told local media at the time. "If there is anything I and the army can do for the country, I am ready to do it because I am a soldier under the king."
Two months later, Sonthi and Surayud both attended a lecture by Prem to army cadets at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. In the speech, Prem essentially set the stage for the September coup.
"Soldiers are like horses, and governments are jockeys but not owners,” Prem said. “You belong to the nation and His Majesty the King.”
After Sonthi took power, local press reports said he consulted with Prem about who should be the prime minister. Prem apparently gave the green light to Surayud, after initial reports suggested that the appointment would be well-received.
“The appointment of Surayud makes it clear that decisions are coming from the very top,” a former Thaksin adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Sentinel. “There is no way to say this is not a royal coup. The reaction in Thailand will be good because nobody in their right mind will say anything bad about him. But it’s clear that Prem doesn’t give a damn about world opinion anymore.”