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by Marwaan Macan-Markar

on Thailand's military coup

(IPS) BANGKOK -- 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 Sept. 19 bloodless coup in which twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed while abroad. It has moved into the background after producing an interim constitution and installing the country's 24th prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, who will direct affairs until general elections in October 2007.

The junta presented a timeline for the next year, including steps toward a new and more permanent constitution and a "free and fair election."

Still, the motives of the junta, which now calls itself the Council for National Security (CNS), are being scrutinized. It is obvious the military will remain the political master of the land for now.

Surayud, 63, is a former army commander -- although one with a record as reformer and a respected professional soldier. Questions are being raised about his legitimacy and commitment to 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 prime minister in the interim constitution that came into force over the weekend. Sonthi, as head of the CNS, has the power to remove the prime minister 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 begin shaping 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 Monday at a seminar at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University that looked at the causes and consequences of the September coup. "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. "This country has been engaging with the global economy and international opinion is very important. But there are other shades of opinion."

Thai academics opposed to the coup have been harsher in condemning the political developments that have followed. "This is a step backwards. It is an illegitimate government," Giles Ungpakorn, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said in an IPS interview. "Nobody will be fooled about its democratic legitimacy."

"What is pathetic is that the junta appointed a military man as prime minister," he added. "This confirms the dark shadow of the military junta over Thai politics."

Even respected civil rights lawyers are questioning the junta, as reflected in a commentary written in Sunday's Bangkok Post newspaper by Thongbai Thongpao.

"Section 34 (of the new constitution) prescribes the CNS may seek to attend a Cabinet meeting to jointly consider problems. I don't know by whose request this provision is written but if it is the wish of the (junta), it is not clever," argues Thongbai, who was also a former senator. "It spoils the pledge of non-interference in the civilian administration."

Surayud certainly had such skepticism in mind when delivering his first speech.

"I realize I have accepted the position as the leader of the administration without going through the electoral process. I came by appointment to resolve political problems," he said Sunday, following his appointment.

"Our future will be better and power will be returned to the people," added Surayud, who since leaving the army has served as a member of the elite privy council, which advises the country's monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Still, middle- and upper-middle-class Thais 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.

In the words of Suchit Bunbongkarn, "This (the coup) is a change for the better for Thai democracy and democratization." The former judge of the constitution court added that such pro-coup sentiments reflect a unique side of Thai political culture. "If democracy fails to resolve very important questions in society, then Thais agree to allow coups to happen, provided there is a good intention of the coup group."

Suchit, like other prominent members of the Thai intelligentsia, believes the junta's rationalization for deposing the Thaksin government. They have ranged from the coup saving the country from violence on the streets between pro- and anti-Thaksin groups to the coup being the only hope for justice after Thaksin corrupted the entire political and economic culture.

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."

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Albion Monitor   October 6, 2006   (

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