Rough waters in Thailand

Thailand's military rulers are starting to realize the pitfalls of destroying a functional democratic system and ruling the country by force. The junta is now attempting to consolidate power as violent threats permeate Bangkok. Certainly elections, tentatively scheduled for October, look a long way away as contending forces in the capital, none of them readily identifiable, jostle for power.

The country’s political situation is rapidly growing more confused and chaotic in the wake of New Year bombings that took the lives of three persons and injured scores more, giving the generals fits who claimed to love democracy so much that they were willing to kick out a popular elected prime minister with tanks on September 19.

“My boss has been too nice to those who have ill intentions for the country and the people,” General Saprang Kalayanamitr, an assistant to junta leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin, told a radio station late Thursday night. “From now on, we would adjust our strategy and get tough on those people.”

This is a long way from the royalist-instigated October coup, in which military forces were met by civilians in Bangkok bearing flowers. New secondary coup rumors against the original coupsters spread like wildfire Thursday night after troop movements were detected around the capital. Although some military and diplomatic sources said the incident was nothing more than a normal troop rotation blown out of proportion, others theorized that generals led by Saprang were ready to overthrow Sonthi and the military-appointed government of Surayud Chulanont.

In that case, the sources said, Saprang and company planned to oust the military-appointed government, rip up the interim charter, put the family of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra under house arrest and seize their assets. They also wanted to arrest former army chief and prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, the most vocal junta critic who has been suggested as a suspect in the bombings earlier this week.

This element of the junta believes, as Saprang said, that Sonthi and Surayud have not done enough to crack down on Thaksin loyalists, allowing them to regroup. Saprang, who is vying to replace Sonthi as army chief when the junta leader is forced to hang up his uniform in October, wants to take a harder line. Those sources said the planned coup was foiled because Saprang did not have the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

As Saprang, Sonthi and Surayud met for talks Thursday night, the king never responded to requests for a meeting, leading the three to strike a compromise to start flexing their military might against Thaksin and others kicked out by the generals.

Whatever Thursday night’s events, the turbulent, opaque maneuvering of the past week makes it appear that restoring a more democratic government after the September ouster of the twice-elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra is likely a pipe dream. Rather, conservative military forces appear ready to tighten their grip on power as struggles within the ranks rise to the surface, setting the stage for potential violence later this year.

“Democracy in many countries is not free; people have to fight for democracy,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political and military analyst at Chulalongkorn University, told Asia Sentinel. “No leaders will give democracy to the people easily, so there is going to be a struggle. Since the military took power, the people must fight to gain back democracy. I can only hope it's a peaceful one.”

Prospects for peace look grim at the moment as divisions within the coup group begin to manifest themselves. Many analysts speculate whether Sonthi, generally regarded as a professional soldier who is looking forward to retirement, can keep the armed forces unified before scheduled elections some time later this year.

Sonthi went on TV Thursday night and Friday morning to deny the coup rumors. He insisted that the Council for National Security, as the junta calls itself, remains unified.

“These losers are doing everything they can to discredit the Sept. 19 coup,” Sonthi told Army-run Channel 5. “They are doing everything to show that the country is in chaos and the CNS can't restore peace as we have promised…. They are trying to tell the people that the CNS and the government have no credibility.”

If that is indeed the case, it appears to be working. A poll released Friday by Asumption University found that the government’s popularity plummeted after the New Year’s Eve blasts. Just 48.5 percent of 1,600 Bangkok residents polled by the university said they support Surayud after the explosions, down from 90 percent when the junta appointed him premier in October.

Potentially more worrisome for the generals is a growing lack of trust in the military for security. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they trust the police -- which the generals are trying to restructure and which formed a major part of Thaksin’s power base-- to protect them from future attacks, while only 53 percent had confidence in the army and 11 percent in Surayud himself.

Indeed, the appointed prime minister and former army commander hasn’t exactly brought comfort to the masses. On Thursday, Surayud told the public to expect more “life-threatening” events in the near future, and Friday said the unrest could continue for several months.

After the bombings, the divide between Surayud’s government and the generals has been growing. While the prime minister has claimed that no concrete evidence has surfaced to make arrests, the generals have consistently fingered rogue military elements connected to Thaksin.

But no matter how much heat Surayud takes, analysts say it’s quite unlikely he will be removed by force, since King Bhumibol supported him so explicitly in his annual birthday speech last December.

“The king gave Surayud unconditional support,” an Asean diplomat said. “Whoever takes Surayud out will be a villain, maybe even worse than Thaksin.”

Garnering the king’s support for any major political moves is absolutely crucial in Thailand, where the monarch has achieved near godlike status after six decades on the throne. When Sonthi staged the September 19 coup, he was granted an audience with the king within hours, leaving the masses no doubt as to what their beloved king thought. Then the coup leaders appointed Surayud, who served on the king’s 19-member privy council, to lead the interim government. A few months later, Bhumibol blessed Surayud’s government in his annual birthday speech.

“For old people in the government, they have no greed for themselves and deserve a compliment for their willingness to continue to serve the country although they have long worked and should have their retirement time,” he said.

The strategy of those who may want Surayud to leave may just be to make his life as difficult as possible. Surayud already said he would resign if recent allegations that he illegally purchased land on a forest reserve, reportedly dredged up by Chavalit’s aides, proved to be true.

“The groups that want Surayud out may just be spreading coup rumors to increase the pressure so much that he just resigns,” said a Western diplomat who follows politics closely. “If that happens, it would be hard to find a replacement. If they get really desperate to find somebody, then these guys like Chavalit and [Chat Thai leader] Banharn [Silpa-archa] may bizarrely come back on the scene.”

It’s hard to imagine that the coup leaders would trust Chavalit to take over the civilian government, but, as was the case with Thaksin and publisher Sondhi Limthongkul last year, there is typically a fine line between friends and enemies here. For sure, Chavalit has taunted the coup leaders. He accused Saprang of “gross incompetence” for not making arrests on the bombings after claiming to know who did it.

Chavalit remains close to retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, who heads the 19-member privy council and is widely seen as the mastermind of the coup to take out Thaksin. In desperate times, desperate measures may be called for. In any case, it remains to be seen if Saprang will get his wish to crack down on Thaksin, which may signal his growing influence in the junta.

Saprang, General Anupong Paochinda and General Montri Sangkhasap are all in a race to succeed Sonthi as army chief in next October’s military reshuffle, and all may be making power plays within the army now to prepare for a scheduled military reshuffle of low-level officers in April.

“The April reshuffle will be an intense period, and negotiations have likely already started,” Panitan said. “The generals need to move people into position now so when April comes along they are able to control things more tightly. People like Khun Saprang and Khun Anupong will likely look to consolidate power.”

If the two are split, they sure didn’t give that impression when they met diplomats on Thursday to “clarify” events after the bombings. Dressed in civilian clothes (“so as not to scare the farang (foreigners),” one diplomat said), Anupong and Saprang coolly explained that the bombings could not be connected to the insurgency that has claimed nearly 2,000 lives since January 2004, and blamed political opponents. The statements from the generals were much stronger than those from the Foreign Ministry, which, at the same briefing, claimed the government had no evidence of anything.

Still, diplomats noted that no police were present at the briefing, even though they are leading the investigation. It also struck them that two generals were needed to represent the CNS, which may have signaled the emerging rivalry.

At one point during the briefing, Saprang made the roundabout argument that the bombings could only further delay elections scheduled, which is not what the junta wants. This argument seizes on the belief that the Thai public would finally get upset if they thought the army wanted to stick around permanently. By holding elections, the generals could get off the tiger’s back as soon as possible.

Members of the former ruling Thai Rak Thai party, unsurprisingly, are skeptical.

“Saprang wants to make sure that another Thaksin is not possible,” said a former MP. “He wants a Prem-style bureaucratic polity that will keep him or his associates in power.”

From the looks of it, the constitution-drafting committee may be thinking along the same lines. Some members have already come out in favor of an unelected prime minister, and many have said rules that promoted strong parties such as Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai may be scrapped. In its wake would be weak political parties and a strong military, which would essentially retain the right to topple any government by force.

The military has made headway in expanding the Internal Security Operations Command, a Cold War leftover that nearly faded into history in the late 1990s. The coupmakers have since attempted to regroup Thailand’s entire security apparatus under it, including the police, with the army chief in control. Sonthi earlier said the coup leaders would add 60,000 new staff to operate “security missions” in 76 provinces. These would include monitoring political opponents.

Although many doubt Southern insurgents were behind the New Year’s Eve blasts, the situation in Thailand’s southern provinces has deteriorated rapidly over the past few months, with daily assassinations almost doubling in the previous two months. Arson attacks have also risen dramatically.

“The south has almost become ungovernable,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Jane’s Information Group. Whether the rise in violence in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani can be attributed to deteriorating counter-insurgency measures or a tactical increase in attacks by militants who know that Bangkok is in a state of turmoil remains unclear. But a major incident in the region would further undermine the military-appointed government and the CNS and could become a major problem to add to growing instability across the rest of the country.

With the insurgency emboldened, Surayud’s government has tried to push through controversial measures, including the elimination of farm subsidies, the imposition of capital controls and even a ban on alcohol advertising. For sure, the ambitious agenda requires much more political capital than the unelected generals can muster, particularly now that their reputation as white knights coming to save the day has been stained.

“You can’t undo what’s been done in the past five years in just three months,” said Panitan. “To take on police reform or push forward with corruption allegations will require more power. So the military may now take additional measures to get more control.”

Nearly everyone sees trouble ahead. As the junta’s opponents step up their attacks, the military may further tighten the screws on civil liberties. That could eventually lead to mass protests, like the ones in October 1973 and May 1992, both of which ended in bloodshed.

“It’s going to be rough seas ahead,” the analyst said. “Uncertainties are all around. But Thai people clearly want democracy, so sooner or later democracy has to return. The military has to find a way to accommodate that.”