Thai Coup Rumors Recur

Thailand is again in frenzy over coup rumors, perpetuated mostly by anti-government Red Shirts who need a reason to protest and by a media machine that needs a story. The top generals have denied that anything is amiss, words that mean little since they said the same thing before ousting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

Unfortunately for the men in green, the coup rumors and the billionaire CEO, who last year was named a "special economic advisor" just over the border in Cambodia by Prime Minister Hun Sen, have yet to disappear. Getting rid of Thaksin's influence completely would presumably be the rationale for another coup. The military would take over and obliterate him once and for all. While a coup can never be discounted completely in Thailand, staging one now carries much more risk and far less return than four years ago.

A coup this time around would likely lead to bloodshed. The street protests by the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts and pro-Thaksin Red Shirts over the past two years became increasingly violent, with golf clubs, guns and grenades among the weapons of choice. The military can't assume the public will take another power grab lying down. Pro-Thaksin elements of the military would probably stage some sort of insurgency, jeopardizing the country's security and making governance extremely difficult. Investors already miffed at the constant legal surprises in the military-drafted constitution will have all the more reason to put their money in Vietnam instead.

In addition, the army is already getting most everything it wants. A succession plan for Army Chief Anupong Paojinda is firmly in place. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has proved an ally on many issues and removing him may alienate his supporters, many of whom backed the 2006 coup. Another takeover would put the military right back in a political spotlight it has tried to avoid since a dreadful administration led by former army chief Surayud Chulanont in 2007. Abhisit is their best bet for the moment.

Finally, the international fallout would be greater. It would be tough for Thailand's Western friends to shrug off another military intervention in the same way they did when Thaksin was ousted. The timing would be especially awkward for the U.S., which has more than 10,000 troops in the country until Feb. 11 participating in Cobra Gold, a Thai-hosted military exercise with American, Japanese, Indonesian, Singaporean and South Korean forces. The top U.S. army commander for the Pacific and the head of the U.S. Pacific Command were both in Thailand last week. Thai Army Chief Anupong Paojinda is in the U.S. visiting Pentagon officials this week.

The biggest beneficiaries of the coup talk are the pro-Thaksin group that needs to build momentum before a court rules Feb. 26 whether to seize about $2 billion in proceeds from his family's 2006 sale of telecommunications firm Shin Corp. to Singapore's Temasek Holdings. How much money Thaksin will get back will be the latest indicator of where things stand.

Like most of the court cases brought against Thaksin after the coup, the assets seizure case is more about politics than law. It's anyone's guess how it will turn out. Ever since head of state King Bhumibol Adulyadej instructed judges to solve the country's political problems in 2006, nearly every legal decision has gone against Thaksin. Courts have nullified an election that he won, dissolved two parties linked to him, banned him and some 200 lawmakers associated with him from politics for five years, and slapped a 2-year prison sentence on him for abuse of power, should he actually ever reappear in Thailand. Prosecutors have at least three more criminal cases against him that they are keeping in the bag.

If the court were to exonerate Thaksin and give him the money back, it would undermine the whole rationale for ousting him in the first place and instantly boost his war chest for the next big election fight. That would be an unlikely game-changer. If it takes all of his money, Thaksin will have nothing else to lose and may escalate his attacks against the monarchy and privy councilors. More likely is something in between. Throwing him some money while taking a large chunk of it may be the best way to placate both sides. Indeed, the king urged judges last month to "stay in the middle." Thaksin may be happy with at least US$1 billion.

Threats of Red Shirt chaos around the court decision are probably just bluster. The group's leaders saw how the April 2009 discord, which forced the cancellation of a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gave Thailand a black eye dented their popularity, and a repeat of violence would likely result in a similar defeat. Red shirt leaders quickly admonished retired General Panlop Pinmanee after he announced that he would help lead a pro-Thaksin people's army. Rather than inspire chaos, the court ruling will likely be greeted by street protests that serve as a springboard to bigger demonstrations in the months ahead.

Abhisit may be more worried about a no-confidence debate coming this month or next. He angered his smaller coalition partners when his party chose not to support changes to the constitution, indicating that he has one eye on an election. The People's Alliance for Democracy, whose airport protests in 2008 backed by Bangkok's elite helped oust Thaksin's allies, have now formed a political party that will compete against Abhisit's Democrats. Constitutional change has always been the PAD's pet issue, and Abhisit probably doesn't want to open himself up to their attacks before the next election. Any seats the PAD picks up in the next vote will likely take away from the Democrat's tally.

Abhisit's Democrats control 172 votes in the parliament, which currently has 475 lawmakers in total. The pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party has 189, leaving seven smaller parties to share the remaining 114 seats. The smaller parties are unlikely to abandon Abhisit because the alternative may cost them more. Bhum Jai Thai, headed by former Thaksin ally Newin Chidchob, is competing with Puea Thai in its northeastern stronghold. Banharn Silpa-Archa, the de facto head of Chart Thai Pattana, has already said he won't pull his party from the coalition. The other parties are even weaker and it's hard to tell what they would gain in a government led by Puea Thai. An election costs a great deal of money and they are probably happy to milk their ministerial positions while waiting for Abhisit to make the call. Thailand must have a fresh election by the end of next year.

With the military and coalition partners unlikely to abandon him, Abhisit looks like he can ride out any protests over the next month. Last week he said his party was targeting 240 seats in the next election, underscoring his confidence. That would be the most the party has won in decades, and a significant jump from the 165 it took in 2007 when it swept Bangkok and the South. On the other hand, another Thaksin election win would likely spin the country into further chaos. It took a coup and an airport seizure to oust the past two governments led by Thaksin or his allies. It's hard to imagine what will be needed to get rid of them the next time. Things will become even more tense if the royal succession is at hand.

While Thailand's power struggle is still nowhere from being resolved, Abhisit will likely be able to muddle through 2010 without any major disasters before he's forced to call an election next year. But as with most political developments in Thailand, that largely depends on the military.