TOPICS : Like Musharraf, Thai general just can’t let go

Army commanders who seize political power by force often have the best intentions. But once installed they find it hard to let go. General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Pakistan’s elected prime minister in 1999, subsequently appointed himself president while remaining army chief. Seven years later, and now peddling a book lauding his achievements, he seems determined to carry on indefinitely.

Thailand’s coup leader, Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, cast himself as a national saviour when he bundled PM Thaksin Shinawatra out of office last week. Many Thais and some foreign commentators welcomed the intervention, as “necessary evil”. But Gen. Sondhi, too, is showing signs of succumbing to “putsch-itis”, a condition afflicting military men with ideas

above their station. As in the Philippines and Myanmar, democracy in Thailand is in danger of being musharrafed.

After promising to appoint a civilian prime minister within two weeks Gen. Sondhi now says his choice could be a retired general. He claims this amounts to the same thing — but few non-generals will agree. He also foresees a continuing “advisory role” for his junta once an interim government is created. This will continue until postponed national elections are rescheduled, under military auspices, possibly by October next year or possibly not.

The junta has also launched open-ended inquiries into thousands of corruption allegations. If mishandled these probes could further destabilise the country at a delicate moment and come to resemble a vendetta, prompting a divisive backlash among Mr Thaksin’s still numerous rural backers.

“There remains an awkward paradox for Thaksin’s foes,” said Nick Cumming-Bruce, an analyst. “For all the criticism aimed at Thaksin by educated Thais, he was still an elected PM with a pro-poor agenda that won him mass support.” And as the generals doubtless realise, as matters stand now Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party would almost certainly win a free and fair election. Perhaps for these reasons, Gen. Sondhi is persisting with emergency measures that entrench the military’s grip but are hardly compatible with a smooth transition back to democracy. Such heavy-handedness in the form of martial law may soon begin to grate on a compliant population. Sensing trouble, Louise Arbour, the UN’s human rights chief, urged the junta this week “to ensure respect for fundamental freedoms and reinstate the disbanded human rights commission”. Opposition leaders, NGOs and regional experts are also warning that Thailand’s coups, of which there have been 18 in 72 years, nearly always end in tears and sometimes, as in 1992, in mass killing.

Perhaps the biggest single coup casualty may yet turn out to be King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose perceived semi-divine humility has won him extraordinary popular devotion during his 60-year reign. He gave a crucial endorsement to the coup-makers. If they outstay their welcome and the Thai tide turns, then God save the King. — The Guardian