Military in control but less visible

If democracies can be built with military precision, then Thailand’s coup leaders are making the right moves. On Monday afternoon, well before their own two-week-deadline, they withdrew tanks and troops from the rain-soaked streets of the capital. The army has kept other promises made after the September 19 bloodless coup in which twice-elected PM Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed, while abroad. It has moved into the background after producing an interim constitution and installing as the country’s 24th PM, Surayud Chulanont, who will direct affairs till general elections in October 2007.

To follow, over the next year, are steps towards a new and more permanent constitution and a “free and fair election”, states a timeline by the junta that was presented to foreign correspondents. Yet, the motives of the junta, which has transformed itself into the Council for National Security (CNS), are coming under scrutiny due to other features taking shape in post-coup Thailand. Most obvious is that the military will remain the political master of the land for now. For a start there is Surayud’s appointment. The 63-year-old is a former army commander — although one with a record as reformer and a respected professional soldier — that has raised questions about his legitimacy and loyalty towards a pro-civilian democratic process. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader, was once Surayud’s subordinate when the newly appointed premier was still an army man. More troubling is the authority the CNS has arrogated to itself to check the powers of the PM in the interim constitution that came into force over the weekend. Sonthi, as head of the CNS, has the power to remove the PM and appoint a new one.

The CNS also has the power to appoint a 250-member National Legislative Assembly (NLA), its chairman and deputy. That body will oversee the appointment of a 2,000-member National Assembly (NA), for which the junta’s endorsement is necessary. The NA, according to the military rulers, will select a 100-member drafting committee to give shape to Thailand’s 18th constitution. Little wonder why diplomats, who expressed reservations soon after the coup, are airing concerns.

“It looks like this interim constitution gives too much power to the CNS,” a senior European diplomat said, on Monday, at a seminar that looked at the causes and consequences of the September coup at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “This is not very reassuring. The interim government is also under the CNS.” Thailand cannot ignore the impact of negative international opinion, an Asian diplomat told IPS.

The junta is not at a loss for middle and upper-middle class Thais who are coming out in droves to defend the junta and its actions. This growing army of self-appointed spokespersons includes former judges, retired diplomats, human rights activists, journalists and academics.

For the moment, Thai citizens who have defended the coup are also prepared to believe what Gen. Winai Phattiyakul, a ranking member of the junta and secretary general of the CNS, told foreign correspondents: “We are not going to intervene or get involved in the administration. The armed forces are quite professional.

We are ready to accept orders from the civilian government.” — IPS