Thailand’s King Endorses the Coup

King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave the military-appointed government a royal blessing in his annual birthday address Monday night, applauding the "personal sacrifice" of Cabinet members now running the country after the generals seized power from twice-elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19.

"Some of you may have come out of your retirement in order to salvage the country," said the king, who turns 79 on Tuesday, in a 45-minute live radio address. "Do your job in the best way you can even though you may face some criticisms."

"Old people who have experience can use their experience to help other people," he said. "People who have no experience can make the country go bankrupt.''

He then added: "People who have no experience have ruined the country."

The king's speeches are typically indirect and parabolic, so hardly anyone expects any outright references to the coup. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain messages to the country’s political and military leaders. Last year, he told the public that he could be criticized, which prompted Thaksin to drop a host of libel lawsuits against chief critic and publisher Sondhi Limthongkul.

Now Thaksin is gone, the royalist generals are in and Thailand is again in uncertain times. The junta-appointed government has come under increasing criticism as they attempt to hold the country together before a scheduled return to democracy in about a year. Last week's decision to lift martial law in 41 of 76 provinces should ease some nagging criticism that hung over the heads of the generals since they seized power. The measure will take effect once King Bhumibol signs the order.

"The lifting is to improve our international image and help tourism," Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtas told reporters last week. "We are confident that we can control the situation."

Boonrawd insisted, however, that the government needs to maintain martial law in some provinces "due to both domestic and foreign security concerns, as well as concerns about drug smuggling and illegal immigration." He provided no details.

Martial law may sound bad on its face but for most of the country the decision to scrap it has little effect. The soldiers who lined the capital accepting flowers and providing smiling photo ops in the days after the coup have long since returned to the barracks; small protests against the coup have gone on unimpeded by military might.

Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin actually wanted martial law maintained in Bangkok, but the cabinet refused in a mild show of independence. Afterwards, the junta chief said appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont would be "primarily responsible" if anything happens in Bangkok, which could be an allusion to any slim chance that deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra could try and sneak home.

Anti-coup groups have planned a large rally in Bangkok for Dec, 10, the first since martial law was lifted. They are pushing ahead with the protest even as the Cabinet warned local government officials not to participate in the show of dissent.

"I told them not to do anything that could further worsen the situation," said Interior Minister Aree Wongsearaya. "Everybody knows if there are more problems things will get worse. So they must think of the country first and not themselves."

Unsurprisingly, the provinces still under martial law are Thaksin strongholds in the North and Northeast and the violence-plagued provinces in the Muslim South. Boonrawd said the government needed martial law, for example, in the peaceful northern tourist haven of Chiang Mai, Thaksin's hometown, for "security reasons" and "drug suppression."

The international community appeared to welcome the decision to partially lift martial law, but then the coup had only received muted criticism from abroad to begin with. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi a few weeks ago, Thai officials gushed after US President George W. Bush shook hands with Surayud and told him he "understood" the military takeover.

The partial lifting of martial law is unlikely to affect the US$24 million in military assistance cut off by the US after the coup, which is contingent on a free election. The European Union has called lifting martial law an "important benchmark," but that did not stop it from cutting a deal with Thai trade negotiators on chicken imports two weeks ago.

"Lifting martial law in some areas is a good sign," an Asian diplomat told the Sentinel. "But what is stopping them from lifting it everywhere?"

The official answer is that unspecified "undercurrents," apparently of Thaksin supporters, still pose a threat to the coup makers. The largest of these may just be in Buriram province, a land of old-fashioned machine politics bordering Cambodia in the northeastern Isan region.

For years, the country's seventh largest province has been under the thumb of the Chidchob family. Newin Chidchob, who served in Thaksin's cabinet and was one of his most visible supporters during the past year, is an intimidating figure in Isan. He has been accused of countless shady deals in more than a decade of government service, and

his brother was once fingered in an assassination attempt on a fellow lawmaker.

In 1996, when Thailand was still ruled by weak coalition governments, Newin told then Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa that he would force an early election if he was shuffled from Deputy Finance Minister to Interior Minister, apparently because he felt the finance portfolio could deliver more goodies to his province.

"I don't want to hold a gun if the gun has no bullet," he told local media at the time.

Newin was one of the key targets of the coup makers, along with Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat, who the generals accused of arming forest rangers with assault rifles.

The rumors that Yongyuth had formed a wild-eyed militia of forestry people ready to pick off anti-Thaksin protestors one by one first came from outspoken publisher Sondhi Limthongkul back in March.

At the time, Yongyuth sued Sondhi for libel, saying: "The training aims to strengthen the rangers' skill in using weapons in forest protection operations and was not arranged to fulfill anyone's political goals." He added that Sondhi should stop "making up stories."

Weeks before the coup, army commander and junta leader General Sonthi ordered Yongyuth's ministry to return 1,000 Heckler and Koch assault rifles that the military had loaned to forestry officials years ago to protect 143 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. To justify the move, Sonthi made the dubious claim that the army was "in dire need of weapons."

Yongyuth responded: "If the army really takes the rifles back, I will have to distribute slingshots and knives to forest rangers instead for their own protection, as well as to fight poachers."

Less than a month later, the brass hats led a force into Bangkok to overthrow Thaksin's undeniably popular twice-elected government. One of the reasons for the takeover, the public learned in a long and rambling White Paper issued by the coup makers a few weeks ago, was that the army hoped to preempt a violent conflict between Yongyuth's

forest rangers and "peaceful" protesters.

"Even if protesters from one side might rally peacefully and unarmed to exercise their constitutional rights, those on the other side had mobilized villagers in a show of force," the junta's White Paper said, without actually naming which villages provoked such a national emergency. "Reports indicated about transportation arrangements, food supplies and arms training. It was predicted that confrontation between rival sides would degenerate into armed clashes which could cause untold casualties among the people and inflict damage to the public property."

So instead of acting on this allegedly solid intelligence and arresting the leaders of the unnamed militant group that was set to unleash a frenzy of bloodletting, the generals did the next best thing: they tossed out the entire government and the 1997 Constitution, which traces its roots to the actual bloodshed that occurred during the Black May protests against military rule in 1992.

Both Newin and Yongyuth were briefly detained immediately after the coup. Yongyuth said he was off to Canada to study for a PhD in environmental management, while Newin has been lying low, apparently positioning his faction for a return once the new political dispensation shakes out.

Like many Thai Rak Thai MPs, Newin is waiting for the junta-appointed Constitution Tribunal to make a decision on whether to dissolve the party Thaksin founded as a personal vehicle in 1998. Subsequently, the junta may be waiting to see if a decision against Thai Rak Thai in the case, which started hearings last week, sparks some discontent among his rural supporters. If it doesn't, then maybe martial law can be lifted in more provinces. Rumors are certainly flying that the provincial people are organized and ready to go, although nothing has happened so far.

"The coup group is so very scared of Newin and Yongyuth because they have lots of followers," said a leader of a small group that has organized anti-coup protests in Bangkok for the past several weeks. He expects the protests to grow now that martial law is lifted. But it may not be an anti-coup uprising that the generals need to worry about. Rather, it may be rural folks who are losing out due to new government policies.

"A very small minority of people in Isan seem concerned about the coup," said a Western diplomat who recently traveled through the region. "But they are worried about the economy, and particularly the price of rice."

The day after the coup, the military ordered "laborers and farmers" to avoid participating in any "gatherings or movements." At the same time, they assured the working classes that their voices would be heard.

Yet a month or so into their tenure, the government lowered rice prices across the board. Under the plan, farmers will get about 1,000 baht ($27.50) less for premium jasmine rice and about 500 baht ($13.75) less for white rice. Rubber prices have also fallen dramatically, and thousands of farmers have threatened to clog Bangkok's congested streets to protest. The checkpoints still set up to prevent mass marches to the capital checked that possibility. Such a direct hit to the pocketbook, especially soon after rebuilding from the worst floods in years, may prompt rural folk to start asking the elite in Bangkok just what sufficiency economy is all about. And it also may make them yearn for the return of Thaksin, whom they helped elect into office twice.

Certainly Thaksin is a key reason the generals kept martial law in half the country. Right after the coup, his lawyer said that he would like to return to the country once martial law is lifted and the situation stabilizes. He has since taken that back and said Thaksin has no plans to return anytime soon, but those words can hardly be trusted.

If Thaksin does happen to show up at Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport, it's unclear what the new government would do. It hasn't charged him with anything yet, so if they arrest him comparisons to detained Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will start flying from the lips of his supporters. The generals would certainly like to avoid turning their billionaire nemesis into a martyr.

At the same time, the new government is getting a taste of just how difficult running the country can be, particularly when it has no electoral legitimacy. Commerce Minister Krirk-krai Jirapaet, apparently feeling heat from Japanese investors who have poured billions into Thailand's automobile industry, expressed frustration that the interim government wouldn't formally sign the free-trade deal that Thaksin's government had negotiated with Tokyo.

''Some people say the interim government should not sign FTAs," he told reporters. "But why do we have a government if it can't sign good pacts?''