TOPICS: Thai junta slips on coup promises

The political temperature in Thailand is poised to rise in the new year as the country’s military leaders scramble to retain their fast eroding legitimacy following the mid-September coup. December marked the end of the honeymoon this South-east Asian country’s junta and its military-appointed government had enjoyed for over two months. Visible cracks have appeared on issues that the post-coup regime had held up as its triumph cards.

These include the idea that the military has the country’s interest, not personal agendas, at heart. But as 2006 drew to a close, the two men who have come to define the current regime — Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader, and the military-appointed PM Surayud Chulanont, a former army chief — are facing embarrassing exposures by pro-democracy activists. Sonthi is being accused by an anti-coup group of having two wives, which if proved is a violation of two articles in the country’s criminal codes. The country’s finance minister has been pilloried by sections of the media for a decision to impose controls on the country’s currency, the baht, being traded. It resulted in the crash of the Thai stock market, wiping off $23.4 billion. That this “blunder” happened on the third month of the coup was not lost on analysts here as a fitting sign of the troubles that lie ahead for a regime that has no tested electoral base nor large popular support across the country.

The only thread it is hanging on to is the blessings the coup leaders have received from the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Little wonder why some analysts are resorting to the dramatic to consider the realities that await Thailand in 2007. “It will be a year of living dangerously,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said. “The military came to power saying they will be better than the Thaksin government, more open and democratic, but this difference is eroding. People will soon be asking, what was the point of the coup?”

That question, in fact, is likely due to the failure of the military government to nail the ousted Prime Minister for his alleged record of corruption and nepotism. They were two reasons that angered middle- and upper-middle class citizens in Bangkok during the first half of 2006, prompting large anti-Thaksin street demonstrations that paved the way for the coup.

Thaksin, say some analysts, can still attract a large crowd if he returns, in particular among the rural poor. “The coup leaders know that they are dealing with a formidable challenge in Thaksin,” Thanet Aphornsuvan of Bangkok’s Thammasat University said. The game in town — of keeping Thaksin away from the country — and the junta’s attempts to silence the sections of the media open to Thaksin’s views are destined to erode the junta’s democratic credentials. “When the junta decided to create its own style of government, it should have thought about opposing voices,” says Thanet. “Otherwise they will run into problems.” — IPS