Thai junta going Burmese way?

Thailand’s junta leader, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, is in danger of inviting comparisons with military strongmen in neighbouring Burma, where successive generals have refused to transfer power to a civilian administration. Suspicions have been triggered by the vague language Sonthi used while explaining his political future beyond a general election scheduled for the end of the year. A debate is now swirling about the political ambitions of the country’s army chief, who came to power following a coup last September, the country’s 18th putsch.

“He could have ruled out all speculation that he wants to be made the PM after the poll by simply saying no to the job,” Michael Nelson, a German academic specialising in Thai political culture, said. “By being evasive, he is showing that he entertains the idea that he want to jump into politics.” “This is making people jittery about the true intentions of the coup, which was to return power back to the people,” he added. “It seems like an effort by the army to regain lost glory after its powers and prestige was reduced in the late 1990s.”

“Sonthi came under fire from critics and allies alike on Sunday for playing games and planning a return to power by the people,’’ reports Tuesday’s edition on The Nation, an English daily. “It follows fresh speculation that he will run in the next general elections under a new political party backed by the army.”

Across the border, Burma’s military generals, who have held power since a 1962 coup, are in the process of getting a new constitution approved by a military-appointed constitutional assembly. Following that, a referendum will be held. But this charter has language that aims to cement the military’s power in the country as an over-arching force, consequently undermining pledges made by the Burmese junta that the constitution will usher in democracy and give power to the people.

“Although the regime in Thailand has been at pains throughout to deny comparisons being made between it and its counterpart in Burma, it is increasingly difficult to avoid them,” argued the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a statement released over the weekend. “In Burma too the junta is putting the finishing touches on a constitution that has the purpose of cementing the role of the military in state affairs for years to come and ensure the continued impunity of senior officers for any alleged wrongdoing.”

The junta’s move to resurrect a security law that was used during the Cold War to go after members of the Communist Party of Thailand and others deemed enemies of the state has also alarmed human rights groups. But the Thai military will not have a free run with such plans, says Thanet Aphornsuvan, assistant professor of history at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “They will be aware of what happened in 1992.”

That year saw a bloody showdown between the military and a pro-democracy movement on the streets of Bangkok, resulting in over 40 deaths and over 100 people going missing. It came after Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had come to power through a coup the previous year, refused to hand over authority to a civilian government following a general election. He took on the role of PM with the support of five political parties after resigning in April 1992 as the supreme commander-in-chief and head of the military. — IPS